The Hypocrisy Problem

A few days ago, the Metro newspaper turned Theresa May’s rhetoric back on her, slamming her deal with the DUP as a ‘Coalition of Chaos.’ The phrase had already done the social media rounds as a hashtag. Soon after Jeremy Corbyn threw back the same phrase, as well as Lynton Crosby favourite ‘strong and stable leadership’, in the House of Commons. Undeniably it’s satisfying to see the words of the powerful rebound like this. It has the appeal of poetic justice when they walk into a trap of their own design. It’s also satisfying because it punctures their self-righteousness, they build up a pedestal with words and it returns them to the level playing field with a bump. But, equality is not the real aim, we should be trying to prove how our ideas are better too. And I worry the satisfaction of exposing hypocrisy often stops us from taking the necessary next steps.

There are so many reasons to resent the entrance of the DUP into our government in any way. When we focus our criticisms on the chaotic aspect of the coalition we’re implicitly accepting May’s anti-coalition rhetoric. If we keep repeating the phrase it will take root and inevitably return to bite the left in the ass. The left leaning vote in the UK is far more divided than the right, the left has Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens. All are often expected to reassure they won’t form coalition, accepting the idea beloved by tabloid rags that democracy works best as a sort of ‘strong and stable’ kingship and not by healthy compromise and debate.

Hypocrisy has a purpose beyond the ‘gotcha’ feeling of seeing a politician trip over and tangle in their own words. It shows an opponent’s lack of principle and opportunism (though we often too easily forgive the same on our own side). It pokes holes in the consistency of their morality. But the operative word here is not ‘morality’ but ‘their’. When say a homophobic politician is caught with his trousers down in a men’s bathroom the point is his moral framework is wrong and should be rejected. If we only parrot his homophobia back at him, we in some way reinforce what he stood for.

There’s more to this than just giving credence to our opponent’s worldview. If our response to a criticism is only to turn it around on the wielder we have done nothing to refute it. And yet, we can now focus on the other side’s sins, so we don’t have to worry about our own. It makes it very easy to abdicate responsibility. And this goes for the other side of the conversation too, they can throw back the hypocrisy because we didn’t refute the original accusation. And so on and so on. Nothing is solved, and division and factionalism grow. At the far end of this road lies the mindless, transparent projection of Donald Trump, where whatever name someone hurls at you immediately applies to them. There’s no room for self-reflection down that path.

Hypocrisy accusations are nothing new but it seems to have ramped up in recent years. The new importance of twitter to our political discourse may be blameworthy. The character limit discourages nuance, while the quick click required for a retweet marries well with the satisfaction of catching out a political opponent. But let’s not forget we are living in the wake of a Presidential campaign in which both sides had a closet full of skeletons. It was far easier to attack the other side than defend the problems with your own. In this environment of political nihilism returning an accusation is more common than defending your own stance, and this just feeds the problem further. And yet there were still clear differences between sides, we did not need to accept the illusion hypocrisy makes of an even contest.

Is there an easy solution? Probably not, hypocrisy has been here a long time and it is deep rooted in human thought and argument. But, the next time you spot it maybe also consider whether the hypocrite had a valid point. If they don’t, then pointing out their hypocrisy only highlights a flaw in their logically consistency, be careful not to accept their argument. If they do have a point, then by all means point out their hypocrisy, but you’re going to have to think hard about the charges your side has to answer too.


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