In Defense of Hypocrisy

Since attention, good and bad, is exactly what Gawker was looking for when they started sniffing around Christine O’Donnell’s dirty laundry, I’m hesitant to reward them with more of it. But I do want to highlight Scott Lemieux’s response to the exceedingly thin justification Gawker offered up for their sleazy gossip mongering:

Once you start defining principles at that kind of high level of abstraction, “hypocrisy” charges become a solvent that completely dissolve privacy for no public benefit. Decent people try to conduct relationships with other people according to some ethical and moral principles, whether religious or secular (and, yes, feminist principles very much count as ethical and moral standards), and humans being what they are don’t always apply their values with perfect integrity. If any deviation from abstract moral principles justifies this kind of story, everything about pretty much anybody is fair game. “Hypocrisy” can be a reasonable justification if we’re talking about personal behavior that contradicts standards that a public official wants to impose on the public through law. If you’re making adultery a central argument in why a president should be impeached, then it’s fair to say that your adultery is a relevant issue. But once the standards being violated become more vague and less relevant to public policy, I get off the bus. O’Donnell believes a in a lot of bad policies, but as far as I can tell has never claimed that premarital abstinence should be a legal requirement. So her sex life (or, in this case, non-sex life) isn’t a matter of public interest, and in trying to claim noble motives, the editors of Gawker are embarrassing themselves.

Of course, if they really wanted to avoid embarrassment, the thing to do would have been to never publish the story in the first place; that bridge has been pretty thoroughly burned.

But on to the larger point: personal hypocrisy, as a vice among politicians and public figures, is grossly overrated. If a hardline anti-immigration reform senator is caught employing an undocumented housekeeper, it may tell us a great deal about his moral fortitude as an individual; but it tells us next to nothing about the value of the policies he is proposing, nor about his competence in implementing those policies. I’m not saying that political figures shouldn’t be prosecuted for illegal acts when the hypocrisy is regarding a legal matter, but this obsession with how politicians conduct themselves in their personal lives is at best foolish, and at worst — as it was in the Gawker story — deeply invasive and cruel.

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29 thoughts on “In Defense of Hypocrisy

  1. I’d have no problem exposing the sexual hypocrisy of someone who built her whole career until now on campaigning for a certain code of sexual behavior, while violating that code in private. But by the looks of it, any transgression of hers was exceedingly minor, if transgression is even the right word for it.

    We’re not even close to George Rekers, Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, David Vitter, Mark Sanford… And with so many other cases to choose from, fabricating one seems rather unsporting, doesn’t it?

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    • @Jason Kuznicki, You’re right about Christine O’Donnell. “Transgression” is the wrong word. As far as Vitter goes, I’d say the relevant fact isn’t hypocrisy but illegality. And as for someone like Haggard, I’m more interested in what this says about whether or not homosexuality is a “choice” than his personal hypocrisy.

      As for Sanford? Honestly? What he did was sleazy, but I don’t really see it as a public concern.

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      • @Ned Resnikoff, If you run on a family values ticket and are visiting prostutites, then hypocracy is an issue. I do wonder why Vitter wasn’t prosecuted. I think maybe it is because he is a republican and all they have to do is apologize to their preacher and vote to limit liability for offshore disasters to keep the campaign contributions coming in.

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        • @dexter45, nah, nothing so conspiratorial.

          Denver had a thing a while back in a very exclusive squash club. There were, ahem, nice ladies around who made themselves available to the power players who frequented the gym. The mayor, captains of industry, etc. One of the news stories talked about one of the, ahem, nice ladies finding the mayor’s robe and wearing it.

          The nice ladies were prosecuted.

          There was not a single gentleman at this club who was prosecuted.

          As for why people kept sending him money… I dunno.

          But his not being prosecuted is similar to the reasons that Spitzer wasn’t.

          He’s male. Only females get prosecuted for such acts.

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          • @Jaybird, I was discussing this with someone the other day. This custom is exactly backwards. If you want to ban a particular behavior, the most logical thing to do is to go after the person with the most to lose. You don’t even have to come at them as hard. A middle class American is going to be far more afraid of spending a weekend in prison than a streetwalker. Exposure alone is enough to scare the heck out of most men (particularly married ones). Come down hard enough on the men and I don’t even think you need to really worry about the women. Sweden has had some success with this model.

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            • @Trumwill, yeah, but (at least in this case), that would involve busting the mayor and captains of industry.

              Hell, that was the problem with Heidi Fleiss. She was on trial and it was this *HUGE* scandal that she might name the names of her clients! Gasp!

              Hell, Spitzer bragged about how many nice lady rings he broke up while AG while, at the same time, enjoying time with nice ladies. (I don’t think it’s crazy to ask if he was offering some amount of protection to his chosen agencies while busting the competition.)

              Did he get arrested? Was there even a grand jury?

              There are a number of jurisdictions in the country where solicitors of nice ladies have their pictures put in the paper or on the web. This is for the lower (and perhaps middle) classes.

              Captains of industry? They have nothing to fear. They know that the chicks are the ones who are going to end up in court and that the scandal will be that, maybe, the madam will name names.

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  2. At the risk of easily-mockable dualism, there are two kinds of hypocrisy that I see going on.

    The first kind is of the form “the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon” form. This kind doesn’t particularly bug me that much. At worst, it’s kinda funny… but there are principles that I know that I don’t live up to even though I should. There are things that I do in my private life that I don’t recommend for anyone else (Rock Star Low-Carb Energy Drink!). Hell, my life is full of things that I know I should not do but I go and do them anyway. Indeed, since I know that I shouldn’t do them, I have no problem saying that you shouldn’t do them either.

    And I do them anyway.

    Given that I have such an intimate relationship with this kind of hypocrisy, it doesn’t bug me overly.

    The second kind is the kind that really gets me.

    It’s similar enough to the first kind, I suppose. It says “don’t do this thing” while the speaker goes on to do that thing. The difference is that the speaker doesn’t care whether anyone does that thing but saying such a thing is a good way to accumulate power.

    The Ted Haggard thing strikes me as really funny… but, honestly, I have no doubt that the stuff he was doing was eating him alive at the same time that he was doing it. When he was fighting for protecting the family, he meant it. He knew, first hand, how precarious virtue can be.

    I feel more sorry for him than anything else.

    Now the other kind, the Newt Gingrich “it doesn’t matter if I do this so long as I say it” (or the Katha Politt waving away of Paula, Monica, Kathleen, Juanita) is the kind that absolutely infuriates me.

    The wacky thing is that the difference is the internal state of the alleged hypocrite which is, let’s face it, unmeasurable.

    But the first kind doesn’t really bug me (and is kind of funny) and the second kind makes me dream about tar and feathers.

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    • @Jaybird,

      The Ted Haggard thing strikes me as really funny… but, honestly, I have no doubt that the stuff he was doing was eating him alive at the same time that he was doing it. When he was fighting for protecting the family, he meant it. He knew, first hand, how precarious virtue can be.

      Sure. Haggard is no more a hypocrite than someone who preaches on the evils of drunkenness but occasionally falls of the wagon and goes on week-long benders, hating himself and his weakness for booze the whole time. The details only reinforce that: Vegas, meth, a professional “masseur”. He was making his lapses as evil as possible.

      Now if Haggard had been hiding a nice boyfriend that he truly cared for, he’d be a hypocrite and a half.

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  3. I agree with what you’re saying here, and I think that generally used to be the norm for reporters. Every reporter in the 60s knew what starlets Kennedy was sleeping with, who was doing drugs, etc., they just never reported it because they thought it was irrelevant. I think the idea of our leaders being saints in their personal lives is a fairly new one. I mean, look at Heracles.

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  4. > If a hardline anti-immigration reform senator is caught
    > employing an undocumented housekeeper, it may tell
    > us a great deal about his moral fortitude as an individual;
    > but it tells us next to nothing about the value of the
    > policies he is proposing, nor about his competence in
    > implementing those policies.

    I’ve been chewing on this for about a half-hour, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s lacking something.

    Granted, this is in many ways essentially poisoning the well, except the poisoner in this case is the well itself. That may, in fact, tell us something about the value of the policy. It may, in fact, tell us something very cogent about the value of the policy (it depends upon the policy); to suggest otherwise is almost special pleading.

    I’m working on this, so apologies if it seems rough, but there seems to be several different categories of policies that one could be discussing in the public sphere. You have pro-action policies (tax subsidies, GI bill, etc.) that are designed to encourage some sort of behavior, and punitive policies (most everything else) designed to discourage some sort of behavior.

    When a public figure is suggesting a punitive policy on top of a body of punitive policies for some sort of behavior that they actually do themselves, this is different from someone suggesting a pro-action policy for something that they *don’t* do themselves, but like Jaybird think they ought. They have at least a case study of one to suggest that their punitive policy proposal won’t work. The pro-19 posts on the League in the last week or so are examples of this.

    Telling someone, “the country would be better if only nobody did this (except maybe me)” is somewhat different from “the country would be better if we got people to do this (even if I don’t).”

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    • @Pat Cahalan, Wow!- I was about to post something on this topic making exactly the same distinction- between punitive and advocative legislation- and why it’s easier to accept the second from people who have done what they’re legislating against. Maybe this is a case of great minds thinking alike (I wish anyway).

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  5. “If a hardline anti-immigration reform senator is caught employing an undocumented housekeeper, it may tell us a great deal about his moral fortitude as an individual; but it tells us next to nothing about the value of the policies he is proposing…”

    I don’t know, if your policy is so onerous that even you can’t follow it, maybe it’s really not such a good idea.

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  6. Once again it is the hypocrocy of the thing. One of Clinton’s nominees for office was not confirmed because she had hired an illegal alien as a nanny. I know that the offender this time is trying for an office by a popular vote but it is still hypocrocy.

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