Three years ago I wrote a post entitled In defence of hypocrisy. But recently I have noticed myself in other places railing against certain public figures very much for their hypocrisy: PETA for killing animals in its own shelters when it proclaims that “meat is murder”, or Mitt Romney for promoting his own individual-mandate health-care plan as a federal option until it was introduced by Barack Obama, at which point he began railing against it. Have I been inconsistent about this? Even, perhaps, hypocritical?
Not as far as I can tell. My positions on these issues are consistent with the view I outlined in the comments there, which I think is worth exploring in its own post. There are at least two very different kinds of hypocrisy – call them the hypocrisy of weakness and the hypocrisy of calculation. The previous post defended the hypocrisy of weakness – the hypocrisy expressed by American religious conservatives like Bill Bennett, Mark Sanford or Ted Haggard, who have railed publicly against the behaviours they practised in private. As far as I can tell, both before and after they were exposed for their private acts (gambling, heterosexual adultery and homosexual adultery respectively), they agreed their behaviour was a bad thing; they were just expressing weakness in the face of their own vices. We are all privy to this behaviour; what differs is the vices or presumed vices in question. If it’s not gambling or homosexuality we treat this way, it’s bad relationships, procrastination, angry outbursts. Everybody’s a little bit akratic. The point is key to the appeal of chastened intellectualism.
The key point about the hypocrisy of weakness, as I tried to emphasize before, is that the advocacy of virtue remains a good thing in the face of the practice of vice. We may well dispute that homosexual sex or fornication are genuine vices (I would certainly do so). But our problem should be with the bad ideas, not with their weakness in practice. The fall of these leaders should be an occasion for our pity, not our smug contempt. (According to some definitions, including dictionary definitions, this is not hypocrisy at all – but the term “hypocrisy” is still very widely used to refer to it. If one were to argue, plausibly enough, that those definitions are right and this is not hypocrisy, that wouldn’t change the point of my argument here; indeed, it probably strengthens it. I just lose the rhetorical appeal of defending a presumed vice.)
Quite a different thing, however, is implied by the hypocrisy of calculation. Commenter “mop” pointed to Newt Gingrich: trying to impeach Clinton for cheating on his wife and lying about it, when he had been doing the same himself. Unlike Haggard, when Gingrich’s affair was discovered, he simply shrugged it off – in his 2012 campaign he even called it “close to despicable” to raise the same sorts of questions about him that had been raised about Clinton. This is not a man trying and failing to be virtuous by his own standard; this is a man cynically exploiting virtues he does not care about for his own political gain.
I would, however, claim just the same about Bill Clinton himself, who confessed his own marijuana use with a blithe and evasive “I did not inhale” – while doing nothing about the punitive penalties imposed for marijuana use by his own government. Hypocrites of weakness – the good ones, trying and failing to be better – accept responsibility and the consequences for their actions. That means that if you’re criminalizing an act you have participated in, you had best be willing to accept the jail time that you are prepared to impose on others. About the only excuse one can offer for Clinton here is that nearly every presidential politician of his age and younger, including Barack Obama, has taken the same craven route.
Most would say it is too much to expect of politicians that they be noble or consistent. That is likely true. But the actions of weak and genuinely repentant politicians – those who, when caught in their weakness, take full responsibility for it and leave public life gracefully and apologetically – are not part of that problem. They are, it seems to me, part of the solution.
La Rochefoucauld is quoted saying “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice plays to virtue.” The question in my mind is whether that homage is sincere. Are we aiming at virtue while falling into vice, or are we merely pretending to aim at a virtue we don’t really care about?