September 8, 2020   5 mins

In a classic line by the comedian Norm Macdonald, he recalls how a friend told him the worst thing about Bill Cosby was “the hypocrisy”. “I disagree,” Macdonald apparently replied, “I think it was the raping.”

Hypocrisy is the easiest vice to diagnose because one only has to hold one’s rhetorical opponents to their standards and need not articulate one’s own. If you charge me with a sin, moreover, but then prove to have committed it yourself, your shame spares me the burden of defending myself.

This is not to claim that hypocrisy has no immoral implications. It is almost inevitably an act of deception — and a demand that others meet standards one is either unwilling or incapable of meeting. All of us are hypocrites, to some extent, inasmuch as it is easier to say something than do it, but that does not make it right.

Yet I think in most cases it is one of the lesser vices. Consider two men: John and Joe. John is a habitual and callous cheat with no pretensions to virtue and Joe is a religious family man who once betrayed his wife. I think most of us would agree that John’s behaviour is more condemnable — and that Joe’s worst sin was cheating and not hypocrisy. Joe might be more satisfying to condemn, because dragging the righteous from their perch has a thrill which denouncing the lowly does not, but that isn’t quite the same thing.

People on the Right love to talk about hypocrisy, in its undeniable and contentious forms. Check out any Right-wing website and you will find article after article about hypocrisy — and, more specifically, staggering hypocrisy. The “staggering hypocrisy” of the BBC. The “staggering hypocrisy” of Jean-Claude Juncker. The “staggering hypocrisy” of Labour.

But then I love to criticise hypocrisy as well. On the Right, our red meat is an environmentalist who takes a plane, or an advocate of socialism with a second home, or a male feminist who gets handsy after dark. Progressives idealists and scolds who cannot, or will not, live up to their own lofty ideals are entertaining archetypes, who make for good copy, but there are limits to this kind of rhetorical manoeuvre.

First, instances of “hypocrisy” can be nothing of the kind. For example, this year Dan Hodges of the Mail declared that Labour politicians “have to stop being a bunch of holier-than-though, self-serving hypocrites”. What makes them hypocrites? Hodges wrote: “Two years ago, Corbyn announced he was launching a campaign to oppose plans for a range of new grammar schools, roundly endorsed by his Shadow Cabinet. Corbyn attended Haberdashers’ Adams Grammar School in Shropshire. Sir Keir attended Reigate Grammar School in Surrey.”

How is this hypocrisy? What are Corbyn and Starmer meant to do, go back in time and insist on their parents sending them to different schools? Left-wingers who rail against private schools while sending their own kids to them can be accused of hypocrisy, perhaps, but I don’t think we can hold Corbyn and Starmer’s education against them.

A classic example of misplaced hypocrisy-hunting came when Tory MP-cum-“Never Trump” fanatic Louise Mensch scoffed on Have I Got News for You about “Occupy” protestors who had iPhones and bought drinks at Starbucks, prompting Ian Hislop to ask whether one needs to advocate a return to the Stone Age to oppose state cuts. One must be careful that one’s charges of hypocrisy are not just hymns for the choir, intended to affirm Right-wing impressions of coddled progressives without illuminating the smallest substantive insight.

Another weakness with charges of hypocrisy is that using someone’s failure to uphold their standards as a means of discrediting those standards is a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy, or, in British English terms, playing the man and not the ball. I don’t want to be too much of a debate nerd. Such accusations can reveal some things about those standards — not least that they are hard to keep. But it does not prove that they are wrong to hold.

If Harry and Meghan use private jets while handwringing about climate change, for example, it might say something about Harry and Meghan but it says nothing about climate change. If Neil Ferguson meets his girlfriend while in lockdown it might say something about Neil Ferguson but it says nothing about epidemiology. If I tell people smoking is dangerous but indulge in a quiet cigarette behind closed doors, that does not mean tobacco is a health product.

The ubiquity of these charges would be more understandable if they were effective. The biggest problem with Right-wing hypocrophobia, however, is that it acts as a cheap and toothless substitute for explicating and defending principles and policies. When Gary Lineker attacked people who oppose Britain accepting immigrants who illegally travel across the English Channel, for example, MP Lee Anderson called him a hypocrite for not accepting immigrants into his own home. Lineker then took the wind out his sails by inviting migrants to, yes, live in his home.

To be fair to Anderson, it is relatively easy for Lineker to say this when he has a mansion. Yet it is still lazy and weak to hunt for examples of personal inconsistency when he could have mentioned how accepting such immigrants encourages dangerous, illegal crossings, enables people smugglers, runs the risk of Britain accepting hostile actors, strains public resources and makes a farce out of British border control. Perhaps the latter would have made for a more strenuous and controversial argument but it would have been more honest and more effective — that is, to a conservative illegal immigration in itself is a bad thing, whatever the personal conduct of those advocating for it.

Right-wingers often argue, correctly, that Left-wingers use charges of personal bigotry as a means of avoiding difficult debates. Yet conservatives often do the same with the charges of personal inconsistency. The difference is that bigotry is a powerful charge, while inconsistency has fewer such damning connotations.

Again, this does not mean that charges of hypocrisy are worthless. For example, the enthusiasm with which many leftists greeted Black Lives Matter protests in the midst of lockdowns they had tended to ferociously support might not have proven anything about coronavirus but it was a powerful indictment of their priorities. Yet the Right should recognise their limits, since their opponents use charges of hypocrisy too. Long before the #metoo’d male feminist, the Christian moralist with a colourful sex life, for example, has been a classic archetype, as Jerry Falwell Jr. recently reminded us.

Back-and-forth accusations of inconsistency have a lot to do with the decline of a shared moral language. In her book Ordinary Vices, Judith Shklar wrote: “This is the normal character of political discourse between irreconcilable ideological opponents… the contempt for hypocrisy is the only common ground that remains, and that is what renders these accusations so effective.”

Leftists, however, are far less reliant on accusations of hypocrisy, preferring charges of cruelty, prejudice and intolerance. This is because progressive values are more fashionable than conservative principles, so leftists have fewer qualms about articulating their own worldview.

This makes it more understandable that Right-wingers hope their opponents will hang themselves with their own cord. But it can also be tedious and ineffectual. It allows progressives to lead the conversation — with their values front and centre, even when they are being criticised — and reduces conservatives to the role of anklebiters. One should have enough pride in one’s own beliefs not to spend all of one’s time holding others to theirs. I mean, if your opponents lived with scrupulous consistency, would you have to admit that they were right all along?

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written for Quillette, Areo, The Catholic Herald, The American Conservative and Arc Digital on a variety of topics including literature and politics.