The Hypocrite in Western Liberal Democratic Culture

Within western liberal democracies, the sin of hypocrisy is viewed as particularly pernicious. This is evidenced by the fact that if someone can be shown to have committed the sin of hypocrisy they are condemned and ignored. For example, I have recently ran into people who consider it to be hypocritical to critique Russia’s policy on gay rights, while remaining silent on the situation of gay rights in Saudi Arabia. Surely, this critic has a point that it is hypocritical to engage in such actions as one is not consistently critiquing all nations who fail to meet their standards for human rights, but the hypocrisy of such agents does not invalidate the point that is being made about Russia’s policies. However, in practise legitimately pointing out hypocrisy has the impact of suggesting that the hypocrite’s point is invalid because of his hypocrisy; if one shows that one’s interlocutor is being hypocritical typically the hypocrites arguments will be ignored. Consequently, the charge of hypocrisy, even if not intended as such, acts as a silencing mechanism that can be used to ignore the arguments that the convicted hypocrite is making.

Given the preceding it seems necessary to better understand why we view hypocrisy as such a pernicious sin, and if on reflection it makes sense to view hypocrisy as any more evil than other vices. For the rest of this entry I will examine these questions.

One reason why hypocrisy is viewed as so pernicious is that while western liberal democracies are secular, they bear the history of hundreds of years of Christianity, and Christianity condemns the hypocrite. The hypocrite is a particularly problematic figure in Christianity, because Christianity suggests that we are all essentially sinful, and plausibly suggests that because we are all sinful we should not pass judgment on others. The hypocrite will often pass judgment on others, and thus under a Christian interpretation the hypocrite seems to represent something opposed to the maxims of Christianity, as the hypocrite is not without sin, and yet he engages in passing judgment on others. Consequently, the Christian heritage of western liberal democratic societies certainly would reinforce hatred for the hypocrite. I am not suggesting that the message of Christianity is reducible to what I have disclosed above, but rather that the hypocrite seems oppositional to particular elements of Christianity.

One other reason why hypocrisy is viewed as particularly pernicious is that the hypocrite often offends the pride of other human beings; however, it should be noted that this factor is not specific to western liberal democracies. Due to the fact that we take pride in our lives, and like to think of ourselves as living decent, good lives, we take particular issue with someone who suggests that we are not leading good lives. In many cases such critics have failed to live up to their own standards for the good, so in order to avoid confronting the question of whether we are leading good lives, we point out that this person is a hypocrite, as this will end the conversation and allow us to preserve the image of ourselves as leading good lives. Therefore, our pride also contributes to the condemnation of the hypocrite.

Clearly, hypocrisy is not a positive quality, but it should be noted that within western liberal democracies it seems that it is viewed as one of the worst vices that a person can have. For example, it seems clear that we view the hypocrite as worse than the coward as we do not see people referring to others as cowards as a way of silencing them, but it does not seem to me to be at all clear that hypocrisy is worse than cowardice. If it is hypocritical to preach something, but fails to meet the standards that one preaches, then hypocrisy is a vice, but it is certainly not the worst quality that one could have. And I would say it is better to fail to meet the standards that one preaches, than to be unable to face one’s fears.

However, at this point it might be noted that hypocrisy is more than failing to meet the standards that one preaches, it is rather being duplicitous and presenting oneself as moral and using that image to serve one’s interests, while failing to live up to that image. This is the image of hypocrisy presented in Moliere’s Tartuffe; Tartuffe plays the role of the imposter, or the hypocrite, but his hypocrisy is not a mere failure to meets its own standards, rather Tartuffe presents himself as pious in order to get what he desires. Tartuffe is unconvinced of the truth of religious piety that he preaches. Furthermore, it seems legitimate to view the vice of people like Tartuffe as a social evil that need rigorous condemnation. So there does seem to be a form of hypocrisy that should be viewed as particularly pernicious. However, the trouble is that in many situations the people who are charged with hypocrisy are simply those who fail to apply standards consistently, or fail to meet the standards that they preach, and these people ought not to be condemned severely or ignored, as their vice represents an attempt to better themselves and humanity, rather than an attempt to use pious language to serve their own interests. The evil of the person who fails to meet the standards they believe in, is very different from the evil of the willful imposter, and because within our language we have a single term to cover these two divergent phenomena that carries with it a great deal of social disapproval, we need to be very careful of the way in which we invoke the language of hypocrisy, as we could be suggesting that someone is a manipulator when he is not, and we also could be silencing him, and failing to respond to the actual argument that he has made. This failure to respond to the actual arguments others make is something we should do our utmost to avoid, for we can only enhance our understanding of what is worthwhile, by engaging with the arguments put forth by others.

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The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.