March 29th, 2008

operesque

Against "hypocrisy"

Thomas Scott sounded a warning note in the 101st comment to appear under yesterday's entry about my trip to the countryside:

"Perhaps the vitriol this post has attracted deserves further scrutiny. [Your trip to Wiesenburg] does on the surface seem innocuous but perhaps those nasty anons have an argument that pleasantry alone cannot rebuff. If it is intended as a prelude to a proposed cogent post/essay on the nature of hypocrisy then so much to the good. But recognise at least that your presidential suite hammock vis-a vis your recurrent post-materialist themes must thus be reconciled as a ratio of your preaching to your credibility."



Now, if I were to take this accusation of hypocrisy at face value, I'd probably rebuff it this way (and it's a buff rebuttal pretty much without bluff):

Scenario of the Castle: I, an impoverished post-materialist Berlin artist, paid €8.50 to take the train to the countryside to visit another impoverished post-materialist Berlin artist who'd had the luck to get a residency in a 12th century castle. We ate lentils -- the cheapest dish available -- in the local hostelry. I was then shown around the castle, and some chat about esoterica and cults ensued. Neither of us owning a car, we trudged on foot down a muddy forest track, back to the station. Three times we descended the hill, and three times we climbed it again, sometimes in blizzards, but always oblivious -- so deep were we in abstruse chat -- to both the time and the weather. Since we managed to miss all the returning trains, my friend suggested I stay over at the castle in an apartment which had inadvertently been left open. This I did, rather in the manner of a small boy kipping illicitly in a barn. The next day, after snapping some pictures of the gardens (a public park, by the way, owned by the municipality), I went back to the city.



I did not purchase the castle, nor did I burn an unreasonable quantity of fossil fuel getting there (the train was a double-decker). And yet, somehow, I can never speak of post-materialist themes again without jeers, hoots, and haunting taunts of "Hypocrisy"? Verily, my brothers and sisters, we live in a strange world!

Perhaps the problem is actually with the idea of hypocrisy itself -- the idea that consistency is a greater virtue than whatever virtue an inconsistent man might be talking about, and that personal life and public policy must always be girded up and gridded up to resemble each other. Let me put an alternative point of view. Someone living in a castle, and owning a castle, could very usefully speak about post-materialism. Someone paying five figure utility bills would be in a very good position to talk about -- and act on -- the theme of energy wastage; they would be an expert on it, and have a vested interest in change, and actually have the possibility to make changes on a scale a pauper huddled over a candle could only dream of.



Ad hominem: There are many reasons a charge of hypocrisy might be reactionary and counter-productive. First of all, the hypocrisy mindset pays too much attention to people's personal lives and too little to their programmatic or ideological outlook. If someone is a visionary, or is trying to solve a widespread problem, it's likely that his personal life will reflect the problem whereas his policies will reflect the solution. It would then be pretty stupid to accuse him of saying one thing and doing another -- especially if everyone were pretty much in the same boat, at least until an alternative infrastructure is set up. A charge of hypocrisy might well be a pre-emptive strike designed to stymie future solutions to universal problems.

Consistency above correctness: Consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds. Wanting things to be less complex, and wanting people and societies to be without internal contradictions is understandable, but small-minded. It ignores the fact that it is often only by sinning ourselves that we can learn exactly why sinning is bad. At a certain point we are all saying one thing and doing another. This is, apart from anything else, a sure sign of our complexity, and of our capacity to rise above our current way of living and search for alternatives, no matter how deeply we're mired. Allow it, brothers!



Give me moral perfection or give me corruption: We often strike down people with a spotted reputation only to replace them with people who are unapologetically evil. We hate to be preached at so much that we ignore the sermons we need to hear and prefer unalloyed corruption. At least it's consistent, right? At least there's no hypocrisy there! At least change is taken off the agenda! Thank Christ "hypocrisy" has absolved us of the need to feel wrong, and to make a painful change!

Why me? Because I've talked about carbon emissions, my readers remind me how much carbon I'm burning with, say, a flight to Japan. Over on Marxy's blog, though, frequent flights between Japan and the US have never elicited a single comment about carbon emissions. This is because it's a subject Marxy has never raised. The answer to the "Why me?" question is that, having flagged emissions as a subject of concern, I have opened up the subject. I am seen as fair game for blame, a legitimate target, a hypocrite for then taking long flights. I have opened up an Achilles heel, and now you are attacking it. But a much better question is "Why not him?" Why is it worse to open up the subject, and then act in ways that seem inconsistent with that concern, than never to have raised the issue at all? Are carbon emissions really your concern, or is consistency? Why? Would you prefer if I kept my Achilles heels hidden? Would that make me blameless?

Catch 22: If I don't do what I advocate, I'm a hypocrite. But if I advocate what I do, I'm a narcissist, trying to set myself up as a model for all humanity.



Guilty pleasures: A society that railed against hypocrisy might well also be a society much given to guilty pleasures. They're both concerned with doing something pleasurable despite knowing it would be looked down upon. This society would play certain kinds of games with the line between public and private, respecting it sometimes piously, breaching it at other times callously with an "exposé". In accusing others of inconsistency, this society would, itself, be inconsistent, because it would never quite be clear whether privacy should or shouldn't exist, and whether desire was a good or a bad thing. I would wager this society is culturally Protestant, for these are characteristically Protestant confusions.

100 people in a room: There are 100 people in a room, all doing A Bad Thing. They know it's a bad thing, a thing that will damage the room and everyone in it, but they can't stop. Suddenly a Visionary makes a powerful and moving speech. "We must stop doing The Bad Thing!" he says. His speech is effective: everyone stops. Except the Visionary himself, who keeps doing it. This, however, is a minor detail: the room is a better, safer place. Instead of 100 people doing The Bad Thing, only one is doing it. Suddenly a Commentator gets up. "Suckers!" he shouts. "You've stopped doing The Bad Thing, but the man who made you stop still does it! You've been had... by a hypocrite!" Soon everyone in the room is doing The Bad Thing again.

But tell me, please, who has damaged the room more, the Visionary or the Commentator? Who has the best chance of helping the room?



Scenario of the Island and the Cars: Imagine a small island overrun by cars. So many cars that it has reached a state of car-tastrophe, car-mageddon. Not only is the original function of the car -- a machine which gets you from A to B -- completely defeated by tailbacks and gridlock, but emissions from the machines are destroying the climate and creating eco-migrants, rising sea levels, and general misery throughout the world. Now, political action is difficult, because people -- despite everything -- love their cars. One hundred years of political decisions have been in favour of the car, and it's difficult to reverse that. What's more, cars, if they are a "crime", are a universal one. Everyone uses them.

Into this scenario emerges a politician with a difference: he is really against cars. He proposes radical anti-car legislation -- something no-one else has dared to do -- and surprisingly enough there is widespread support for it. The time is right, the public mood has swung. To publicize his ideas, the politician is photographed riding a bike to work. He is soon portrayed in the media as a saint, a deliverer, a dragon-slayer. But one day some paparazzi shots appear in a pro-car tabloid. The politician, on holiday in Southern Italy, is not riding a bicycle. He is, in fact, driving a car. And it's a red Maserati.



The tabloid gleefully reports the Maserati's extremely high fuel consumption and low efficiency, its roaring engine, the thick black smoke pouring from its exhaust pipe. Jeremy Clarkson crows delightedly, welcoming the politician to the club of unrepentant drivers and declaring his anti-car campaign over. The editorial columns are full of accusations of hypocrisy: the minister is saying one thing and doing another. Far better, think these papers, to support an honest politician: one who is adamantly against all anti-car legislation, and drives his car with pride.

In the wake of this furore, the government quietly drops its anti-car legislation. The island becomes more fume-befuddled than ever, the gridlock more severe. But at least nobody has to make any changes, and at least nobody is being hypocritical any more.

A few decades later, sea levels rise so much that the island disappears completely into the sea. As the top of his semi-detached house disappears into the waves, the last living inhabitant shouts a sort of epitaph for the island: "You can say what you like about this place, but at least we weren't hypocrites!"