Does Hypocrisy Even Matter Anymore?

Accusations of hypocrisy are ubiquitous in American politics these days. Fresh charges of hypocrisy are leveled against everyone, by everyone else, everyday. Democrats and Republicans alike spend an inordinate amount of time on a daily basis identifying the double standards and inconsistencies between words and deeds on the other side of the aisle. Check the twitter hashtags for related terms like #hypocrisy or #hypocrite and you will see that someone somewhere in the world accuses someone else of hypocrisy specifically regarding American political issues about once per minute. Left-wing pundits have been steadfast chroniclers of hypocrisy of the Trump administration. Right-wing pundits routinely accuse the left of hypocrisy regarding the #metoo movement and identity politics. The rise of call-out culture and the ease with which flimsy accusations can be made online has added to the growing outrage economy. 

The effect is dizzying: who can you trust when — across media platforms, both social and traditional — accusations of hypocrisy are rampant? If one were to take every accusation of hypocrisy at face value, then it would seem to be the case that we are living in a golden age of honey-tongued two-timers, disingenuous moralizers, and self-deluding sophists. According to the raw data, hypocrisy seems to be the modus operandi of not only political elites, but also regular folks more than ever before. The sheer volume of both hypocritical behavior and accusations is overwhelming and leaves one feeling rudderless on the grey ocean of ethical incertitude. 

How did we get here? Where are we going? Has the amount of hypocrisy in American politics really increased so suddenly or is this all merely a part of the general turn toward political strategies based on whataboutism and outrage? American politics has always been full of hypocrisy, and indeed the Liberal tradition itself is replete with various forms of hypocrisy that can be traced from Hobbs to Orwell all the way to the present, so the latter seems more likely. Still, with evidence piling up on both sides of the aisle that our moral landscape is profoundly inconsistent to a degree unrecognized prior to 2016, we might wonder whether we are entering a new age of corruption. After all, while not all forms of hypocrisy are indicative of wrongdoing (there is such a thing as benevolent hypocrisy), hypocrisy is generally a feature of political corruption. 

The feeling of disorientation that one feels when confronting hypocrisy today is a direct result of our internal discomfort with moral ambiguity. At its core, hypocrisy is a type of ethical violation that hinges on consistency. According to Ethicists, “Ethics requires consistency in the sense that our moral standards, actions, and values should not be contradictory.” Crucially, this extends to our behavior. We have an intuition that our actions should match our stated moral principles. To take a pithy example, if a person states that “you should not kill” and then they themselves commit murder, they are a hypocrite. While that example seems straightforward, there are many subtle flavors of hypocrisy, and each require tedious considerations that no one has time for in the age of fast-twitch news cycles and constant scandals. Many versions of hypocrisy involve various degrees of injustice, some less and some more. Even the act of accusing someone else of hypocritical behaviour can itself be hypocritical if, for instance, the accuser has committed the same hypocritical act as the accused themselves. What every type of hypocrisy has in common is the central feature of inconsistency: whether they are wrong or right, they each contribute to the general sense of moral drift that has captured America.

The tsunami of accusations of hypocrisy in American life has many potential wellsprings. The most obvious place to begin tracing its origins is the rise of the internet and the skeptical self-awareness that new communication technologies historically engender when they are introduced to societies. For instance, as Christian societies transitioned from scribal traditions to the printing press for distributing copies of holy scriptures, “questions were more likely to arise about the transmission of the teaching that came from the lips of Christ or from the dictation of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles.” As communication platforms have increasingly allowed for individual influence and interpretation (something which medieval scribes and scribal culture was explicitly designed to prevent), so has our awareness of ourselves as personally responsible for preservation and creation of truth grown. Whereas in previous eras, and specifically pre-digital eras, the truth and its interpretation was handed down to individuals by dominant institutions such as churches, governments and businesses, today, we are each responsible for communicating the truth ourselves and interpreting the words of others properly. This widening gap between the increasingly prominent political truths of individuals and the increasingly irrelevant truths of the collective (specifically authorities and institutions) provides fertile soil for the growth of a skeptical culture in which accusations of hypocrisy are both cheap (due to their abundance) and irrefutable (due to the relocation of their epistemic grounding away from institutions and into the subjective experience of modern American individuals). To be clear, this is not a postmodern critique: it is a critique based on the development of political selfhood that advances in communication technology have made possible throughout history. 

Others trace the origins of the hypocrisy explosion to the rise of modern corporate culture in post-WW2 America. Hypocrisy as a modern managerial tool is seen as essential to creating a better future. Like a marksman aiming in front of a moving target, managers must create their desired future by embodying it, and doing so necessitates that they will inevitably be forced to divorce themselves from reality. For dreamers to dream, it is argued, they must be allowed some leeway with the truth. A common example is found in management speak, a specific language game that managers play wherein all matters related to the company are communicated in a positive light with active verbs and superlatives regardless of the realities of the situation. A manager will almost never ‘fire’ an employee, opting instead to ‘take the company in a different direction’ and, later, explain to the team that their former teammate has ‘moved on to pursue other opportunities.’ These pronouncements usually have an incidental relationship to the truth at best. Where corporate managerial science is the paradigmatic standard of leadership values in a society, hypocrisy of one sort or another becomes a necessary component of political norms. Indeed, the normalization of hypocrisy in the age of Trump is one of the hallmarks of his time in office in part because Trump himself embraced and then transcended management speak as part of his corporate brand (“you’re fired!”). Regardless of the substance behind Trump’s business acumen, his disregard for the truth and weaponization of hypocrisy is a natural outgrowth of the game American corporatists have decided to play since the end of WW2.

Unfortunately, no matter how common hypocrisy is, there is a limit to the number of times an accusation of hypocrisy can be made before suspicions arise that wolf has been cried. This is especially true when the accusations do not lead to any rectification, as is the case on social media. When every accusation of hypocrisy leads to investigations and subsequently to apologies, punishments, and amends, then accusations in general are very important. In contrast, when only one in a thousand accusations have any discernible effect, they become worthless. The oversupply of toothless twitter accusations creates an explosive situation when it meets the abundance of hypocritical acts, each of which are potential targets. With an infinite number of dull arrows flying at an infinite number of bright targets, the accusations themselves become the only punishment the accusers can inflict. Each accusation is weaponized, and collectively, the accusations can take on a life of their own, building into a tsunami wave that drowns the reputations of the accused in an unruly court of public opinion. This is one of the phenomena that drives the growth of an outrage culture where the true guilt or innocence of the suspected hypocrite is subordinated in importance to the act of leveling the charge. Ironically, one might feel a strange sadness when suspects are found innocent, as has been felt recently on the Left when the Covington Catholic boys were found to be less clearly racist than had at first been supposed. But of course, when the mob is denied vindication and does not get to gloat, it simply moves on to the next accusation.

What is the solution? One initial reformation could be made on an individual level. We can each individually resolve to be more cautious in our accusations. We could recognize our own hypocrisy before accusing others, following the famous stipulation by Jesus: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.” But deliberate, personal, moral reform does not suit our age of instagram influencers and pepe memes, and will do nothing to address the larger flows of socio-cultural change that new communication technologies inevitably bring. We could strive to reform our corporate cultures to be more egalitarian, inclusive, and communitarian, as the current Agile Method management gurus claim to be doing. That might be a good first step toward bringing corporate life closer to the realities of human behavioral psychology, and it will be interesting to see how this paradigm shift plays out across the corporate world over the coming generation, assuming that the tech industry remains ascendant. But whether or not these reformers can do anything to address the damage that corporatist management ideals have done to the American notion of leadership, which has placed hypocrisy at the center of what it means to be a leader, remains to be seen. Unless the Machiavellian nature of corporate culture changes, the prospect of such reforms remain dim.

In the end, perhaps we can find some solace in the realization that the internet has rendered accusations of hypocrisy impotent and irrelevant, at least on that medium. Unless an accuser joins a digital mob, they are unlikely to have any effect as one individual. At the same time, when they do join a mob, they are likely to cause more harm than good. This does not mean we should not pursue hypocrites. But it does mean that the internet is a hammer while hypocrisy is a screw: the internet is not the best tool for the job. As social media and the internet mature, new political mores are likely to develop about how our society engages with these platforms, as the introduction of TV did after the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. Perhaps the 2016 election was a turning point, but that is hard to tell at the moment. Thankfully, other communication technologies are still effective for now. Slower news media, such as CNN and the Times still maintain a large degree of institutional weight that gives their accusations punch. But with newsrooms shrinking and MAGA protesters following Trump in calling journalists the enemy of the people, the future of these institutions is unclear. At the same time, books have displayed a surprising resilience where other long-form print media have faltered. Podcasts have also exploded in popularity, breathing new life into the radio industry. Importantly, we should also remember that the tech boom is not over. New communication technologies could arise that would radically alter American discourse.

Where does this leave us? The way forward is unclear and is unlikely to become clearer for a long time. For now, the best option is to practice making careful, well-thought through accusations if we can. Whatever happens, we must remain committed to rooting out hypocrisy in our society. Truth is a casualty of unexposed hypocrisy, as any fan of Orwell will recognize. That is why it is important to continue to point out hypocrisy wherever it arises: if hypocrisy goes unnoticed, the truth becomes irrelevant and disregard for the truth becomes tacitly accepted by society in general. The normalization of hypocrisy is a key component of corruption and authoritarian societies. Therefore, whether or not we can adequately adjudicate every potential instance of hypocrisy, we must continue to point them out. 

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