Friday, June 12, 2020

The role of hypocrisy in public debate

No one has anything good to say about hypocrisy, but I am going to argue that it is best left out of political debates -- for the most part.

Dave Rubin relates a time that he lost patience with an old friend of his.  They were debating a subject over a meal, and his friend insisted that Rubin's motives must be something other than whatever argument he was making.  Rubin stopped him and asked (roughly), "Are you willing to grant that I believe the things that I say with the same sincerity that you believe the things that you say?"  The friend would not concede that, so Rubin walked out of the restaurant and ended their friendship.

I have faced similar accusations many times.  Often, friends will phrase it so that it doesn't apply to me directly:  "I believe you," they effectively say, "but I don't believe anyone else who makes the same argument."

The tactic of accusing someone of insincerity or hypocrisy is possibly the lowest form of argument.  It avoids the issue and changes attention from the matter at hand to a person's character, which should, in principle, have nothing to do with the correctness of his argument.  Logically, it is a form of the "poisoning the well" fallacy.  It seems to have become more common in the past few decades, in America at least, and it could be the cause for the current crisis over free speech.  Rational debate depends on the idea that all sides are trying to arrive at the truth, with the end goal (in political debate) of creating a better society.  If one knows in advance that his opponents are secretly working for an underhanded purpose, there is no reason to submit to the mirage of a debate.  It such cases, it is better to shut down the dishonest speech and leave public debate to honest men and women -- who all, of course, happen to agree on the best way to approach an issue.

There are thus good reasons to avoid using the charge of hypocrisy against one's opponents; the more this charge is used and believed, the less likely truly free speech is to continue, and with it, a free society.  At its most dangerous, the charge of hypocrisy is levelled at someone on the basis of no evidence whatever:  he simply must have a more sinister motive than what he claims.  I am calling this "dogmatic hypocrisy" because it is a claim based entirely on the belief of the accuser.  Since sinister motives are hard to demonstrate, many people have taken to using the shorthand of associating an individual with a supposedly unacceptable group or publication.  Quillette is on the list of unacceptable publications.  The ironically titled "RationalWiki" page begins its article on Quillette by asserting that it is an "online magazine that tries to present itself as centrist and libertarian when in reality it serves to legitimize many views shared by the alt-right. For example, it regularly publishes articles from a strong conservative viewpoint that are anti-feminist, anti-immigration, Islamophobic and anti-transgender, with some articles more controversially supporting racialism and HBD ("human-biodiversity") pseudoscience, popular among white nationalists."  Obviously, the author of that passage does not want to "legitimize" these harmful views by taking Quillette authors seriously.

That such a priori judgments are harmful to an open debate is probably evident to most readers.  However, there are two further levels of challenging someone's motivations that are more difficult to dismiss.  The first is what is commonly meant by "hypocrisy":  doing one thing and saying another.  We might label this "behavioural hypocrisy."  Two favourite tropes that fall into this category are Christian preachers caught having affairs, and men who speak against homosexuality getting caught engaging in gay sex.  A signal event of this type occurred when Larry Craig, a politician who (according to some) "had a record of anti-gay legislation," was arrested for soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom.  More recently, Neil Ferguson defied a lockdown for which he was the chief proponent.  He described his behaviour as "an error in judgment," but I think most people would consider it more aptly a case of lying and cheating.

Behavioural hypocrisy makes for wonderful political theater, and it seems difficult to argue that someone who says one thing but does another does not make a good advocate for his position.  There are at least two problems with using the charge in a political setting, however.  First, it is not necessarily the case that a person's inconsistent behaviour indicates deliberate hypocrisy.  As Samuel Johnson once asked an interlocutor, "Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature, as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles, without having good practice?" (from Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Monday, 25 October).  Indeed, depending on when the transgression occurred -- before, during, or after his public pronouncements -- a person may have changed his views and may even be advocating a position specifically because of bad experiences of his own, such as reformed alcoholics.

Second, even an insincere person may advance a valid argument.  A lockdown may be a good idea, even if its main advocate doesn't obey his own rules.  Certainly, if a politician is arguing for a standard that no one can live up to, that seems like a bad standard to enforce.  On the other hand, the fact that one person, or several, have failed to meet a standard does not mean that the standard itself is invalid.  All you have succeded in showing is that one particular person lacks the moral standing to insist on that standard; you have not undermined the argument for the standard except in a very limited way.

There is one case, I think, where it is fair to challenge a person's motives, and that concerns what I will call "judgment hypocrisy."  Consider the case of government debt.  There are different ways of assessing its importance, but if someone says one day that it is a terrible evil, and the next day advocates deficit spending for his favourite program, it is reasonable to point out this inconsistency.  When it comes to assessing the relative merits of fiscal responsibility, someone who changes his mind frequently should not be considered seriously as an advocate for either side.

When people on the Left lined up to affirm that the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh were serious and credible enough to disqualify him from the Supreme Court, they created a standard that was bound to work against them some day.  Because Christine Blasey Ford's complaint had no evidence, even circumstantial, to support it, Democrats argued for a default position of #BelieveAllWomen.  (In spite of the recent article arguing that #BelieveAllWomen is "overwhelmingly" used by conservatives, a Twitter search reveals that it was initiated, and has been used about equally, by feminists.  There was even an article in December 2017 in Bloomberg warning of the dangers of #BelieveAllWomen -- prior to the Kavanaugh hearings). Alyssa Milano recently reinterpreted this hashtag, arguing that "Believing women was never about 'Believe all women no matter what they say,' it was about changing the culture of NOT believing women by default."  Which is credible, in a way; clearly, not every single accusation made by women can be true.  What is problematic is how this standard has been applied by Milano and others.  In 2018, neither Milano nor anyone else on her side talked about "gray areas," which she has suddenly discovered.  There is literally not a single point in Ford's accusation that has more evidentiary support than Tara Reade's against Joe Biden:  Reade's incident was more recent, she can identify a specific time and place that it occurred, and she reported it immediately to people around her.  If there is any reason for believing Christine Blasey Ford, that reason applies more strongly for Tara Reade, yet Milano and others have decided not to take Reade's accusations as seriously.  The only defense has been from individuals saying that they know Joe Biden and believe him, which is no defense at all in the #MeToo standard where no amount of character witnesses or good deeds counts as evidence against sexual assault.

I have only seen one serious argument for Democrats to ignore Reade's accusations against Biden, and that came from Linda Hirshman in her New York Times editorial, "I Believe Tara Reade. I'm Voting for Joe Biden Anyway."  It is refreshing at least to the extent that it acknowledges the seriousness of Reade's accusations and doesn't try to triangulate some system in which Ford is more credible than Reade.  Instead, her justification is that electing Biden will do far more good than harm, even if he is guilty of sexual assault.

This argument sounds plausible, as it posits a Biden-or-Trump dichotomy that certainly does offer different directions for America.  If this were October, I think she would have a reasonable case.  However, it is May, and the nomination hasn't even been given yet.  Hirshman dismisses any alternative to Biden brusquely:  "All major Democratic Party figures have indicated they’re not budging on the presumptive nominee, and the transaction costs of replacing him would be suicidal."  This is a very strange judgment, considering that there have been repeated rumours of a brokered convention in which Biden would be replaced; and this was true even before Reade's accusations became an issue.  Hirshman is not so much making the case that Biden would be preferable to Trump, but that the chance of a Biden victory against Trump is worth more than both punishing a person accused (credibly, she judges) of sexual assault and the chance of some other candidate's beating Trump.

Even "judgment hypocrisy," however, still has its limits as a tool in political debate.  One rarely debates an individual, but rather a position held generally by a political faction to a greater or lesser degree.  If Hirshman and Milano are hypocritical in their views of sexual assault, they might not be the ones at the forefront of the next case, so calling out their inconsistencies does not serve as a definitive argument against anything.  I think it is fair to use their examples as a means of forcing other commentators and politicians to define their own views -- to demonstrate if they suffer from judgment hypocrisy or, on the contrary, are willing to risk the disapproval of other members of their faction to hold consistent views.

Utlimately, there is no substitute to taking every argument seriously -- in other words, to ignoring hypocrisy and dealing with an opponent's claims.  Even if a person's motives are well and truly bad, his arguments may be correct; and if his judgments are insincere, you can at least challenge their validity by putting forward your own judgment or some community standard as an alternative.  The temptation to short circuit a lengthy argument by asserting that your opponent does not really believe his own argument will always be a temptation, and it is not always unreasonable, especially if you are in a debate with a particular individual.  There are, however, better and worse occasions to use hypocrisy.  Hopefully the typology provided here will help convince people to limit their accusations to judgment hypocrisy and, occasionally, behaviour hypocrisy, while shunning the kind of dogmatic hypocrisy that threatens to undermine the very principle of free debate.