Unco Junto: The Nature of Hypocrisy
July 21, 2017
This blog is part of a series I've titled "Unco Junto" (after the discussion clubs founded by Benjamin Franklin) in which I offer an introductory topic essay and a handful of commenters are invited to respond in any way they see fit. The goal is to provide a forum for long-form--and hopefully provocative--analysis in a media often dominated by superficial sound bites. The entry examines the nature of hypocrisy.
Unco Junto: Hypocrisy
Hypocrisy seems to be a running theme on the news and in social media, especially in the political sphere. It seems that hardly a week goes by that one political party is not accusing the other of hypocrisy, on everything from confirming Supreme Court judges to health care reforms. When President Trump fired FBI James Comey in May, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the reaction from Democrats was "the purest form of hypocrisy" and that "Most of the people declaring war today were the very ones what were begging for Director Comey to be fired." This accusation of hypocrisy is objectively and factually incorrect; though many Democrats had criticized Comey at various times (including for his handling of Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation shortly before the presidential election), almost none of them had in fact called for Comey to resign or be fired; the sole exception was Tennessee's Rep. Steve Cohen. In fact there was bipartisan concern over Trump's handling of the matter, as well as the varying justifications given for Comey's firing. Here is an analysis of three examples of claimed hypocrisy, followed by a brief look at the phenomenon.
Immigration Restriction: Trump vs. Obama
When Donald Trump issued his travel restrictions on people from largely-Muslim countries, he was widely criticized as being anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. In response many of Trump's supporters cried hypocrisy, stating that Obama had done the same thing years earlier and yet the "liberal media" hadn't raised the same concerns or outcry. According to FactCheck.org, "President Donald Trump defended his sweeping immigration policy by calling it ‘similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.'"
I did some research and found that while Obama had in fact taken such measures there were several important differences between Trump's and Obama's actions, including that Obama's action was not an Executive Order; Obama's action did not involve visas; and Obama's action was in response to a specific threat of terrorism. In the end, according to FactCheck.org, "Trump's comparison of his immigration actions to Obama's policy in 2011 is a faulty one. The fact is that the Obama administration was responding to a known and specific threat from one country and limited its response to refugees from that country, while Trump's order temporarily bans refugees from all countries--indefinitely in the case of those from Syria--and temporarily bars all other visitors from seven predominately Muslim countries." Another independent fact-checking organization, Politifact, rated Trump's claim of the equivalence of his actions (which served as the basis for the alleged hypocrisy) as "mostly false."
Flag Burning Laws: Trump vs. Clinton
One of Donald Trump's many controversial tweets suggested that those who burn the American flag should be penalized. The statement was widely condemned by free speech advocates and liberals, followed by conservatives duly rushing to claim hypocrisy. According to the Washington Examiner, "Critics on Tuesday morning were quick to pan President-elect Trump's proposal to make burning the American flag illegal, but soon after a bill began circulating on social media that Hillary Clinton introduced in 2006 to do exactly the same thing."
This situation was not as clear cut as described; it is true that Clinton proposed to outlaw flag burning at one point. However there were significant differences between the two proposals and it's inaccurate to say that Clinton tried "do exactly the same thing." Clinton's proposal was about flag burning for a specific purpose, an action "intended to incite violence," to intimidate or threaten American citizens, and had no provision for revoking citizenship. Furthermore Trump's proposal went beyond merely outlawing flag burning; he suggested specific penalties for violating that law: "Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag. If they do, there must be consequences--perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!" Of course it's the Judicial and Legislative--not the Executive--branches of the government that are responsible for creating and enforcing laws. Unlike Trump, Clinton has previous experience in the Legislative branch and made the proposal as a Senator.
When several Trump supporters asked me what I thought about the hypocrisy, I first pointed out the differences in the proposals, and then-in the interest of intellectual honesty-agreed that Clinton's proposal was a bad idea and one I strongly disagreed with. There was no hypocrisy-at least not on my part-because I was not supporting nor defending Clinton's previous actions. I also noted that the argument seemed to be a "tu quoque" ("you're another") logical fallacy. The fact that Clinton supported a proposal that banned flag burning shouldn't be used to justify Trump's actions; one person's poor decision does not justify another person's similar choice.
Endorsing Perversion: Milo Yiannopoulis vs. George Takei and Lena Dunham
Conservative personality and professional controversy courter Milo Yiannopoulos was disinvited from several speaking engagements, lost a book contract, and resigned from Breitbart in February 2017 after a video clip surfaced in which he said that sexual relationships between 13-year-old boys and adults can be consensual and positive experiences for the boys.
The comments sparked outrage and, predictably, accusations of hypocrisy soon emerged, especially in right-wing media: "On the heels of the controversy stemming from former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos's comments condoning sexual relationships between adults and teenagers, audio has surfaced of liberal actor George Takei seemingly doing the same thing... Stern asked Takei at one point, ‘And he sat down and he touched you. ... Were you molested in a sense, because you were 13?' Takei told him he wasn't molested, simply because he enjoyed the experience. ‘No, no. ‘Cause I was kind of, you know-well, I thought he was pretty attractive,' he said. After going into sexually explicit detail about the encounter, Takei told them, ‘It was both wonderful and scary and kind of intimidating, and delightful. I mean, all those opposites.'"
Actress Lena Dunham was also cited as having described potentially troubling sexual contact with her sister in her memoir Not That Kind of Girl. A legitimate debate about the significance of Dunham's actions followed, with experts offering differing opinions on the appropriateness of the behavior. Unlike Takei's comments, Dunham's and Yiannopoulos's were widely discussed.
The situation and accusations of hypocrisy are not clear cut in this case. George Takei did in fact make light of underage sexual contact, and Lena Dunham did in fact acknowledge taking sexual liberties with her younger sister, including bribing her with "candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds . . . anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying."
Many of these people later issued clarifications and statements strongly disputing any pedophilic interpretation of their comments; for example Dunham said that "I want to be very clear that I do not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances," while Yiannopoulos stated that "I do not support pedophilia. Period. It is a vile and disgusting crime, perhaps the very worst."
To be clear, I have no dog in the fight and have no particular love for Yiannopoulos --nor dislike for Takei. I don't really think that Yiannopoulos, Takei, or Dunham were sincerely encouraging pedophilia, any more than I think Amy Schumer and Donald Trump genuinely think that Mexican men are rapists, despite their comments and jokes--or "jokes"--to the contrary. They are all performers and celebrities who to one extent or another are putting on an act, trying to be provocative and entertaining. All have made comments, whether taken out of context or not, that could conceivably be interpreted as problematic by those who would choose to do so.
The sincerity with which you attribute their comments likely reflects your political leanings, but in any event both sides are being painted by a broad brush indeed. Liberals and conservatives are not unanimous in their opinions (of Yiannopoulos, Takei, or anything else), and thus it's a bit of a straw man argument to suggest that all the failure of liberals to condemn Takei can only be the result of hypocrisy. Nonetheless, it's hard to escape the sense that Yiannopoulos was treated more harshly than Takei or Dunham, whose careers have not suffered any clear harm.
Conditions for Hypocrisy
With accusations of real, imagined, or arguable hypocrisy so common, I thought it would be useful to briefly examine the nature and assumptions of hypocrisy. One is that the person must be aware of both the situations being compared. No one can be completely informed about everything all the time, and a person can't be blamed for not condemning the actions of someone they otherwise support if they didn't know about them. The cognitive tendency toward confirmation bias muddies the issue; since we all tend to pay attention to information that supports and confirms our beliefs about the world, we may sincerely not be aware of information that casts a negative light on actions or people we support. We may unconsciously rationalize away, minimize, or gloss over actions we dislike to avoid criticizing a hero. A liberal may be a huge fan of Takei for his acting work and social justice activism for the gay community while dismissing his comments to Howard Stern as a joke or locker room talk; similarly a conservative may appreciate Yiannopoulos's liberal-baiting antics while dismissing some of his controversial statements as merely a joke or locker room talk.
The circumstances must also be at least roughly comparable; if the hypocrisy arises from a principle being unfairly applied in one situation but not another, then the situations must be more alike than different. As with the first criterion, however, this may be up for debate. What one person sees as an obvious double standard, another sees as having occurred in a very different context--again, likely breaking along ideological lines. And, of course, there are some double standards which are generally accepted (a racial slur has a very different meaning when used as an informal greeting between two African-
Americans, for example, than it does if spoken by a White person).
There's also the thorny issue of what is considered a commensurate response to the outrages. A person may not have agreed with Clinton's support for the anti-flag burning bill, but not made any particular public comment or social media post about it, while widely sharing outraged memes about Trump's comments on the same topic. Unless the person accusing another of hypocrisy can point to specific examples where an action was explicitly endorsed in one case and decried in another, identical situation--as perhaps might occur with a newspaper columnist--it's difficult to really build an airtight case for genuine hypocrisy.
People are not known for being particularly rigorous with their beliefs and opinions, and it's not surprising that they would, more often than not, fail to consistently apply reasoning and principles. Cries of hypocrisy are easy to launch and have a visceral, immediate plausibility, but given the complexities involved, it's likely that many accusations of hypocrisy are on shaky ground-regardless of who's doing the accusing. What do you think?
Hypocrisy and its Imposters
As a print journalist, two things that make me sneer include written pieces that start with quotations and hack-writer news sources like Gawker Media. With that admission in place, I have to give Gawker founder Nick Denton credit for his insight in a 2014 interview when he said, "To my mind, the only real modern sin is hypocrisy."
Denton is absolutely correct. Real hypocrisy--where people do things that they publicly declare shouldn't be done--makes one a heel. This is universally agreed upon. In fact, people are so united against hypocrisy that it's common to see politically-focused people desperately try to smear their political opponents as hypocrites.
The problem is our thirst for hypocrisy far outpaces the actual supply of hypocritical opponents, so many people get creative. And by get creative, I mean they cheat and attempt to wedge hypocrisy into situations where it doesn't belong.
The most obvious approach depends on using strategic vagueness, as seen in some of the examples provided by Ben Radford, in order to label a target as a hypocrite. If I am against stabbing people and say knife-wielding bandits should be brought to justice, should I also condemn surgeons who cut people open with scalpels? Of course not, those are two different scenarios. That's a classic false equivalence.
False Equivalence vs. Special Pleading
However, not all cries of "false equivalence" are justified. In online secular circles, when someone is called out for legitimate hypocrisy, many immediately declare "false equivalence" and fail to explain why. Well, we need to know why they think they are wrong so we can see if they are correct or if they are committing the fallacy of special pleading.
For example, say a group of people see protesters from Team Blue assaulted on the street unprovoked. The group declare that assaulting innocent protesters is wrong. Richard is in the group, but later is caught throwing rocks at a group of Team Red protesters. His explanation for why his actions contradicted his public statements: He believes Team Red will change economic conditions and that will ultimately destroy his job, so by assaulting the protesters he is fighting for his life.
That is to say, when his side does it, it's justified. When his opponents do it to his side, it is an abomination. The context is difference, he insists. But is it? That's what we have to decide on a case-by-case basis. I can imagine some readers rejecting my example and agreeing with Richard. Real hypocrisy, or more formally having a double standard, is common. So is false equivalency. As observers, we need to carefully address the issues to see what is going on.
My Opponent's Murder Proves How Evil He Is
Another common way hypocrisy gets brought up into political discussions is as diversion. Let's assume that Mr. Blue is a celebrity who advocates for new legislation to stop climate change. You will hear some critics dismiss everything he says and bring up his carbon-emitting personal airplane.
The hypocrite! Telling us that we need to reduce our carbon footprint when his is larger than ours! It doesn't matter that there are many more of us and small actions on our part could add up to a big difference. Now imagine elected official Mr. Red who wants to reduce the number of people on a federal healthcare program. What are his arguments? Never mind that, Mr. Red receives his healthcare from the government! It doesn't matter that he receives it because the government is essentially his employer. Never mind his arguments either. We don't have to engage his ideas if we can instead dismiss him as a hypocrite.
We recently got to see a fresh example of this clumsy dodge in action when a minor celebrity was in a photo shoot where she held up a fake severed head of the President Trump. Criticism poured in from all sides, but a number of left-wing websites posted articles that all had the same hot take: Their political opponents were hypocrites for not criticizing political stunts were people pretended to lynch President Obama.
That is to say, a person from their tribe did an obvious bad thing, and they used it as a platform to continue criticizing their opponents. This is a universal impulse, and in this instance it took the form of something I call "categorical hypocrisy."
Like most fake hypocrisy scares, categorical hypocrisy requires purposeful vagueness. Political and ideological movements with large number of participants will bring in people with different ideas overall but a few common ideas. Categorical hypocrisy ignores that diversity and thinks the entire group holds the same ideas. But groups aren't hypocrites-people are. Categorical hypocrisy says more about the accuser than the accused.
For example, declaring that "feminists" don't care about abuses of women in Muslim countries. That's simply not true. The first time I heard about acid attacks in the Muslim world was from my college's performance of "The Vagina Monologues" play, which was run by feminists.
What's more, sometimes people want to talk about the issues they personally encounter. That does not imply a ranking of the importance of problems. If I complain about a restaurant's food quality going downhill, and never publicly mention how devastating AIDS is in Africa, that doesn't mean I think a dry turkey sandwich is more important than preventable deaths on another continent. Maybe you should ask me what I think about an issue instead of assuming my lack of social media posts on the subject imply acceptance.
But that's just what the writers did when they griped about a lack of right-wing complaints of protesters who burned President Obama in effigy. Maybe if they tried talking to their opponents, they would have been told that they had never seen most of those images, or they disliked them but thought their reaction was too obvious to bother saying out loud. Or perhaps they thought it didn't matter if some nobody from five states away pulled a stunt, but a famous person doing it was more noteworthy. Maybe they thought the protesters were simply burning someone in effigy, an ancient practice that has been done to nearly all national leaders, and the celebrity photo shoot was different and looked like a screenshot from an ISIS video. Perhaps some of them had publicly criticized the protesters, but the critic never saw them. That's what happens when you look at categories but talk about people.
All of these justifications are arguable. Some of them may indeed be special pleading, and some may be false equivalency. I don't think most people think of themselves as engaging in hypocrisy, but we are all blinded by our biases-causing us to both act inconsistently, and to see our opponents act inconsistently.
I oppose campus groups who shut down guest speakers through physical force, such as storming the stage, drowning out voices, or blocking the entrances. I've had friends who join me in making those criticisms turn around and make excuses for right-wing protesters who shut down a Shakespeare play that showed the assassination of a Trump-like Julius Caesar. I'm confident that my friends are engaging in special pleading when they say this is different, but they see my view as a false equivalency.
That seems like an open and shut case, so what about my own views? I oppose members of the public who destroy confederate monuments. I want the state to remove them legally, and the sooner the better, and not as a form of vandalism. Yet, I love images of members of the public tearing down statues of Joseph Stalin. Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. To justify my possible double standard, I concocted an explanation that the anti-Stalinist mobs were acting during a revolution, while the anti-confederate actors are acting in a stable country. That's different, I tell myself.
Am I just making excuses for my own hypocrisy? I don't know.
There is a large cottage industry today of online news sites that will find hypocrites from groups you don't like and present them to you regularly. For example, a county commissioner, state representative, or town councilor with relatively little power will get a national headline along the lines of "Lawmaker Caught in Hypocritical Behavior." Why do we suddenly care about minor political figures six states away? Because it shows our opponents engaged in hypocrisy-even if that opponent is a city councilor from a place we've never heard of.
Even in a world filled with tribalism, motivated reasoning, and partisanship where people act inconsistently, our demand for hypocrisy far exceeds the supply so we will always find ways to fill that need.
Michael Hartwell is a freelance writer, journalist, and public speaker from Massachusetts.
While I agree that hypocrisy is rampant in society these days, claims of hypocrisy are also misused all around; left, right and center. One of the things that I find very interesting is that I find myself getting into arguments with conservatives who try to say that liberals like myself are the one's being hypocrites when in fact it is almost always they exact opposite--or at the very least mutual. I often see Trump do or say something stupid (I know, hard to believe) and when I respond with a criticism of the situation I am immediately met with "Hilary would have done the same thing" or "Obama also did that" or something along those lines as if to call me a hypocrite. The problem here is twofold. First off, as already alluded to, they are assuming that because I support a person I must support everything that person says or does and therefore change my position based on politics. I understand that, because for the most part, that is how THEY operate. I have yet to have a single Trump supporting friend dissent from a single thing he has said or done. So much so, that it is getting almost comical.
I recently saw a story about some students at Yale who decided to have a BBQ next to some college grad students who were on a hunger strike protest, hoping to get the administration to sit down and negotiate a contract with student workers. It has been a three year struggle to get the administration to sit down with them. What I find sickening about this has nothing to do with the politics or the workers' situation really, but the fact that the Yale Republican students, who have no stake in either side of this conflict, held their BBQ solely because they find it funny to be assholes. They don't benefit from the workers NOT getting better working conditions and health care, nor do they suffer if the workers get their request... which, again, was just to sit down and negotiate.
I was immediately met with vitriol from all of my right wing and Trump supporting friends-the majority of which had not-so-nice things to say about the protestors such as, "These entitled Yale kids need to shut up." Now, I cannot understand why anyone would have so little empathy as to revel in another's suffering just because you disagree with them politically, but furthermore if you truly have disdain for "entitled rich kids" why would you side with the Yale students who are NOT working, nor doing anything to help the workers at their school? Let me get this straight: the grad students (and some workers) who are on a hunger strike to stand up for the workers, who just want better working conditions are the "entitled rich Yale students" but the ones who have the free time to devote to being assholes just for fun on Daddy's dime, are the ones in need of your support? How does that work?
So back to my point. I personally, have no problem calling out liberals when they are wrong. I remember being very vocal toward Hillary for her flag burning statement, even though as Ben pointed out, it was not even close to the same level as Trump's statement. I have always been vocal about the policies Obama implemented that I disagreed with. Yes, he wanted to go into Syria, and though I am not going to pretend to be an expert on foreign policy and know all the ins and outs of what goes on in Washington and around the world (I will leave that to the people on Facebook who work part time as a security guard at the mall, because the barista job isn't paying the bills; you know... the experts!) if anyone knows the intricacies of foreign relations, back-room deals, political strategies, and dealing with the fevered egos of dictators it's those guys.
The thing is that all these people who are trying to point the finger at me for being a hypocrite for voting for Obama or Hillary and then pointing out when I call Trump out, are missing the blatantly obvious: It was actually THEM who were against these exact same things and railing against Hillary and Obama... so let's be very clear who the true hypocrite is in this situation. I am constantly hearing that we liberals need to "get on board and see what Trump can do" or that we need to "get over it and stop obstructing him as he was elected legally." Yes you read that correctly: the same people who spent the last eight and a half years whining about Obama; the same people who openly obstructed an extremely popular president who was elected by a huge margin to two terms--the same people who were OK with congress purposely denying that president of his Constitutional right to appoint a Supreme Court Justice for a YEAR--are upset that their favorite burnt sienna colored, narcissistic reality star president is being "obstructed" for a whopping 100 days by a Republican majority Congress, Senate, and SCOTUS. Not only is this hypocrisy at its finest, this is Executive Branch level insanity and cognitive dissonance! This is bordering on religious zealotry.
Understand that I have equal issues with many of my friends on the left, the regressive left as they are called. In the case of Milo Yiannopoulos and his statements about being molested: While I am not remotely a fan of his, what he said needs to be taken in the context in which it was said and meant... it was a joke. It was said on a radio program. He has made it clear that he was not and is not condoning child molestation in any way. I completely disagree with his comments about the age of consent, but again he was not condoning pedophilia. He may not fully understand it, but that is different. In fact he says in the interview that most consent laws are probably right, but that when a man is attracted to a technically underage boy who is full developed, sexually mature. Again whether or not we agree with his point, he is clearly stating that he does not condone pedophilia, rather he thinks someone who has reached "sexually maturity" would not fall under the umbrella of pedophilia. My point is that when compared to what George Takei said, the personal joke about the priest is really no worse. The age of consent line is hardly something to disinvite him and cancel his book deal over, especially when these comments were not made recently. The hypocrisy to me is that no one seemed to care until there was a public uproar about it. Had he said these things recently that would be one thing, but all of this was on the public record long before the speaking engagements and the book deal. If they were outraged by such comments, they should have not given him these opportunities in the first place. I would argue that in fact these types of comments are EXACTLY what got him those opportunities.
This brings me to the disinviting and attacking people we disagree with. This idea that it is OK to censor or physically harm people we don't like is exactly what we are fighting, is it not? I don't want anyone punching me because I am on a hunger strike for workers' rights, just as I won't punch you for being the dick who fires up the BBQ. In one day I saw a liberal friend fight tooth and nail saying that it was OK to punch a Nazi because his ideas were dangerous and at the same time had a Republican friend advocate and applaud a man in a video, running over people in his car because they were blocking the road in protest. Now mind you BOTH friends argued with each other at separate times for and against each action. My liberal friend was appalled at the motorist, just as my Trump supporting friend was at the Nazi puncher. I was appalled that either friend thinks speaking words or having an idea should result in getting punched or run over. Especially my liberal friends! Free speech and civil liberties are now about whose side you are on? Yes I think it was Dr. Martin Luther King who said "I have a dream that one day, we will be able to turn the fire hose on the people we don't like!"
Personally, I want to hear differing ideas. I need to be aware of the garbage you believe and are spewing. We cannot have a discussion and even attempt to come to solutions if we can't even hear the other side's point of view. Perhaps we have the key to what they are missing and the discussion may change their mind... or even-and I know this is going to be difficult for some of my regressive left friends to hear-but maybe you too have an erroneous belief or two and maybe this person has the piece you have been missing.
Either way, like with all freedoms, it is either all or none. Either everyone can believe what they want, or no one can. Either everyone gets to speak or no one does. Either everyone gets to punch people they hate or no one does. This is not that hard to understand. It is particularly disturbing when it comes from my fellow atheists. We have been on the bad end of the "religious freedom" crap for a long time. If anyone should understand being told they can't speak, or that their beliefs (or lack of) are invalid, or offensive, or that they have to shut up and fall in line because "majority rules" it is the atheists.
Yes hypocrisy is abundant and coming from all sides. The problem really isn't new, but I feel in the current state of the nation and the world, where everything is politicized and everything is "us against them," even when "them" is our neighbor and former friends, we find ourselves less tolerant and far less self-aware. This is why skepticism and critical thinking are paramount moving forward. We need to hold ourselves accountable first. We need to be able to admit when we are wrong and make the appropriate adjustments, dole out the necessary apologies, and take responsibility. Set the example for others instead of always pointing out their shortcomings. Perhaps if we can do more of this, others will follow suit and drop their guard enough to see the other side, have a little empathy, maybe change their own opinions or at least meet us in the middle. Of course I won't be doing that... I am always right!
Ian Harris is a professional stand-up comedian who infuses skepticism and science into his comedy. His hour TV special "Critical & Thinking" is currently available on most video on-demand platforms.
A Look At Hypocrisy
Celestia Ward is a caricature artist and illustrator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She has lent her pen to many skeptical and freethought projects, from local newsletters and t-shirt designs to Biofortified.org and Skeptical Briefs. She draws and coauthors the webcomic "Astounding Tales of Science" (ProfessorScienceComic.com), and her caricature work can be found at 2HeadsStudios.com.
I'd like to thank the writers who offered their insightful thoughts, comments, and reactions on this topic. Obviously we could have additional responses to these responses (and so on), but the format isn't really conducive such recursion. I hope you found the pieces as interesting as I did, and readers are of course welcome to continue the... conversation. Check back soon for a new topic!