Oh send us your hypocrites yearning to be free
If ever you wanted to use the phrase “festival of hypocrisy,” today is undoubtedly the day. A march in Paris has been attended by a great many important people, and a lot of those people are leaders or senior figures in wholly despicable regimes. These people are there saying that dissenting voices must not be silenced, while working very hard to silence them in their own countries. I’m not necessarily talking about repressive regimes from Notwhitepeopleania: Enda Kenny has attended, representing a country that has its very own blasphemy law; David Cameron represents a country increasingly becoming a surveillance state; Hollande himself has questions to answer. The word hypocrisy is getting a good old workout on the internet today.
I could be remembering a mythical time that doesn’t exist, but I seem to remember hypocrisy once being a much more direct and compromised thing. Saying that people who avoid tax are destroying the country, while simultaneously avoiding tax – that’s hypocrisy. Bemoaning the immorality of single mothers destroying the fabric of the traditional family, while carrying on with a teenage mistress – that’s hypocrisy. Attending a march reacting to the slaughter of twelve people, ostensibly because a magazine published cartoons people didn’t much like, while simultaneously cracking down on free speech. That’s – um…
See, here’s the thing. This whole affair is becoming “about” many things, but it’s clearly not just about Free Speech TM. There’s the question of the rule of law, there’s the pretty sodding fundamental question of people not being murdered. It’s not actually that contradictory to believe in – say – the restriction of attacks on religions, while simultaneously believing that people shouldn’t be shot dead in their offices if they transgress such a law. To present a very clear analogue, I don’t believe that faith-based schools should receive state funding in a society that calls itself secular, but nor would I see any moral issue with expressing abhorrence and sympathy if somebody burned one down.
Part of the reason I react to this is that the word “hypocrisy” is a much-abused word. It’s the catcall of the lazy, the reactionary, the fatuous. Rags like Th* S*n regularly throw the word at anyone who involves themselves in some sort of campaign to try and make the world better.
The big example’s almost too tedious to go into, but it’s got to be picked apart so I’ll do it. Most of the criticisms made of Russell “fucking” Brand revolve around hypocrisy. He tries to involve himself in causes to help people looking for housing but haaaaa he’s got a big house himself! He goes on about inequality but he’s got loads of money! He bangs on about tax evasion but he works in Hollywood films that just love creative accounting! So fuck him, or something.
But this is just about the most warped priority in the world. Brand doesn’t criticise people for having big houses, or for having loads of money, or for working for companies with dodgy accounting practices. He isn’t a hypocrite by any measure of the word – apart from the now near-universally-accepted reactionary one, where nobody’s entitled to do anything to aid the misfortunate unless their own past is an endless plain of grass-green innocence. The squalid ugliness of the criticism is Russell Brand isn’t just how petty it is, it’s the whole premise. If Russell Brand didn’t say a word about politics and never tried to help anyone, nobody would criticise him for anything. But somehow, because he gets involved in campaigns to give poor people somewhere to live, he somehow becomes a worse person. How can anyone make sense of that?
People on the left – who agree with Brand and his ilk – are equally guilty of dismissing him, including me. I can’t say why other people react as they do, but purely personally it’s a question of resenting people who present easy targets for charges like “hypocrisy.” Being on the left – in the broad sense of “vaguely thinking that society should give a fuck about other people” – is, well… difficult. It means reconciling contradictory ideas so that you don’t end up squashing people under your own rhetoric. Many people on the left are broadly internationalist, but at the same time believe in the right of people to self-determination. Bringing these two things together requires thought, unless you don’t mind coming across as someone who doesn’t think about why they do anything and just jumps on causes they like the look of. As a result, I tend to quadruple-vet most of my opinions for inconsistency at a great big mental checkpoint before I utter them (unless I’m drunk, obviously) and I resent anyone who nominally agrees with me and yet doesn’t do this. They’re presenting soft targets, in my head, when the left needs to be antitank-rocketproof.
For clarity: this is an instinctive reaction on my part, and I’m quite, quite wrong to dislike decent people because they sometimes haven’t achieved absolute wrinkle-free intellectual consistency in their reasoning for why anyone without a job shouldn’t be rounded up and shot.
The point being that right-wing people don’t have any problem with this sort of thing. Reactionaries don’t have consistent opinions, but they don’t see any reason why their opinions should be consistent. The libertarian-right doesn’t have any issue either, because they take a single premise which makes no demands on them at all – “People should be able to do exactly what they like and selfishness is fine” – and just apply it to every single situation they run into. Then they say arse like “how can you be a socialist when you’re wearing shoes?” and think it’s clever. It’s easy for such people to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, because you can’t be a hypocrite if you never profess to give a shit about anything or anyone. But that also makes you an utterly shit human being.
And there’s the rub. Hypocrisy is just about the lamest, weakest, crappest excuse for a criticism you can hurl at anyone and yet it’s somehow become seen as one of the most potent. Everyone needs a certain level of hypocrisy just to make it through the day, otherwise you couldn’t buy a meal until they solved famine in Africa. Hypocrisy is just the consequence of caring about the world and the more hypocrites we have, the better.
To return to the Paris march, many of the leaders attending it are thoroughly despicable people who do awful things. I could list half a dozen reasons to hold David Cameron and Enda Kenny in utter contempt (can’t speak for Hollande, since I know naff-all about French politics, but I’m sure someone can manage it). And as for – god help us – Netanyahu, I don’t know where I’d stop. But if the worst thing you can say about such people is that they’re hypocrites, then you might as well resign yourself to being the kind of person who ridicules Eric Pickles because he’s fat and Robert Mugabe because he looks stupid in a baseball cap. It’s a weak-ass Daily Mail tactic and ultimately it’s the very least of things you can lay at their door. We can manage better than that.