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In Political and Moral Debate, Hypocrisy is a Red Herring

In Political and Moral Debate, Hypocrisy is a Red Herring May 24, 2021

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Are people fundamentally good or fundamentally selfish? The debate on human nature is one of the oldest, and silliest, arguments of all time. People are a tangled mix of motivations. Most people genuinely want to be good, but they also want what’s best for them personally. In the attempt to balance conflicting desires, they may not even notice their own hypocrisy. We love to point out hypocrisy in the behaviors of people we disagree with. Standard logic teaches that inconsistency is evidence of inherent wrongness. But the reality is that the one consistency in human behavior is inconsistency. Reader, this includes you.

Hypocrisy is Human Nature

Over the past week, I’ve marveled at how both sides of the political polarity have used hypocrisy as a tool. If you are a conservative generally opposed to masking, you’re critiquing progressives for screaming at everyone to “trust The Science”- until “The Science” recommended not wearing masks. If you’re progressive, you’re appalled that conservatives have spent all year discrediting health institutions to only now listen to the CDC. “Look how they only listen to the CDC when it benefits them,” everyone says. “This is evidence that they don’t really believe what they say!” Of course, this is evidence of no such thing. It’s only evidence that, when presented with the same set of facts, everyone sees what they think is best.

The truth is, there is a lot of gray when it comes to “the right thing to do” in the current crisis. People tend to give themselves a lot more grace to move around in that area then they give to others. If I let my guard down, it’s because I’m exhausted. I’m anxious and tired and just having a bad day. But that guy on the subway wearing his mask below his chin? That guy is a selfish jerk who doesn’t care about other human beings. It’s an enormous assumption to make about another person, who could have any number of reasons for doing the wrong thing in that moment. But we’re quick to make it. After all, even if he claims to care about others, it’s obvious the guy is a hypocrite.

Nuance for Me, but Not for Thee

When I tell people I’m pro-life, one of the first modes of attack is to find areas where I am a hypocrite. People want to know my stance on universal health care, maternity leave, child benefits, and a whole host of other things. Progressives love to point out perceived hypocrisy in the pro-life movement because it helps confirm their belief that pro-life people are liars. They don’t believe what they say they believe, because if they did they’d also believe in (insert talking point here.) There are two huge problems with this mode of argument:

  1. Inconsistency in thought does NOT indicate insincerity in thought.
  2. Nuance exists.

Now, I tend to be pretty unorthodox for a pro-life person, so my stances on many interconnected issues tend to fall on the Left. However, I know enough conservative pro-life people to know that, in their perspective, opposing both abortion and universal healthcare is not the hypocrisy it appears to be on the surface. They have lots of ideas about how to create a thriving society that do not match with my ideas. But talking to them, understanding what they really think, rather than how I perceive their thinking, reveals surprisingly consistent theories that are not “my real secret stance is that I hate women” followed by an evil laugh. Other people’s positions are in fact just as nuanced and complex as my own. I should know that. But it’s hard when I can’t immediately see  how they reconcile all their desperate stances. To an outsider, it just looks like hypocrisy.

Stop Drawing Conclusions, Start Listening

I’ve decided to stop searching for hypocrisy in the political and moral stances of people I disagree with. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do, not least because contradictions are so easy and so satisfying to pick out. But this satisfaction is a red herring. It doesn’t teach us anything about the other person other than that they are a human being.

And this, at least, should be a point of connection.

About Emily Claire Schmitt
Emily Claire Schmitt is a playwright and screenwriter focused on uncovering the mystical in the modern world. She is a Core Member of The Skeleton Rep(resents) and the Secretary for the Board of the Catholic Artist's Connection. All opinions are her own unless she has recently changed them. Follow her on Twitter @Eclaire082. You can read more about the author here.
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