Some Thoughts on Hypocrisy

2010 April 27
by Joonas Mäkinen

I stumbled across a Pirate Party UK’s text about Labour and Tories being hypocrites on copyright, as the two aforementioned parties have inappropriately (illegally) used and modified material created by the BBC. The accusations made me advance a bit further in my earlier thoughts about hypocrisy and how that term is widely used simply for slander, as a measure of ruling out people’s opinions — never mind if they actually make sense.

I would like to point out that hypocrisy itself should not be used as a final verdict to anyone. Giving a person the status of a hypocrite does not, in fact, bear much useful information at all. It merely tells that, compared to certain time frame in the past, the person’s expected opinions, advice or actions have changed. This may come as a surprise to others, but changing one’s mind is not necessarily a bad thing nor does it absolutely imply that there is something fishy going on.

No discussion should end by name-calling. Instead, we should aim at finding out the reason behind all this. Very often the case is that the one using the word hypocrite holds a grudge and the mere notion of someone using the word should be considered alarming. The neutrality of discussion with no excess bias may have been compromised. In some cases hypocrisy is not used that much as a tool for mockery, but the word is instead implying another, deeper issue. This, I believe, is the more desirable situation, which ought to be investigated further.

Realising the real issue behind the word can be tough, but the topic should be brought up clearly and discussed in the open. In the Pirate Party’s case, hypocrisy is merely a vehicle for pointing out someone’s ignorance — in this case, bringing up the controversy that the parties which have actively pushed through tougher copyright legislation, are, in fact, quite oblivious of the system in general. Here the lawmakers are given the status of a hypocrite to subject their competence to wider criticism, and fortunately this worry is quite valid. Without having a reason for their selection of words, it would be just useless mockery.

So people can be called hypocrites simply because of  a grudge and this does not contribute to advancement in discussion. Hypocrisy may be used as a pathway to present ignorance, and while this does lead to further processing of the topic, it may put some people out. All in all, the probability of using the term “properly”, without sparking a fight is in my opinion so low that everyone should be careful not to use the word too lightly, or at least not to make the accusation too serious. If you have encountered some additional motives for calling someone a hypocrite other than grudge and pointing out ignorance, please let me know in the comments below.

What calling someone a hypocrite very easily does do, is something very harmful. Everyone, friends and foes, can give valuable input to any context. By encouraging people to ignore someone based on purely (poor) rhetorical slander, the whole topic is subject to a potential loss of useful points of view or other information. Everyone should be heard. For example, if I was to obtain more information about the effects of smoking on health, I could listen to academic experts (fairly neutral, not ignorant), cigarette companies (not neutral, not ignorant), people who have never smoked (possibly ignorant and prejudiced), smokers (not ignorant, possibly prejudiced) and people who have quit smoking.

If a representative of one of the last two groups, people who have perhaps smoked for dozens of years, tells you not to smoke, would you call him or her a hypocrite and simply omit everything the person has to say? Aren’t these people exactly the ones who know the best? One smoker told me once from experience that if he was to choose between lung cancer and saving fifty thousand dollars, he’d pick the latter. I suppose simply calling him a hypocrite would not have made me look that clever. It’s better to concentrate on the words and not who said them.

In other news, I’m trying out Flattr. Check it out. I’ll blog more about it later.

  • David

    I think you have a point, in that whether a person is a hypocrit or not does not affect the validity of a particular position in an objective sense. However, I think there is some usefulness to the word, in particular because in the political realm such positions are general laws, to be fulfilled by everyone, and if the legislators themselves have or seem to have no intention of fulfilling them, this shows a clear failure of process.

    One issue is that one’s mind can change with time: today a party may advocate a policy that it disagreed with yesterday. That is perfectly legitimate, and perhaps even desireable (we wouldn’t want people or organisations to persist in mistakes). Another issue is when, at the same time, a party speaks one way and acts another: if the legislator himself doesn’t have the intention to obey the law he has supported, why should we?