Stop prosecuting hypocrisy – it’s fine to change one’s mind


I’ve now and then collected examples of “you’re a hypocrite” media and social media moments, pinning them in my inbox like dull, pointless insects.

Anthony Scaramucci used to disagree with Donald Trump’s views on gun control, climate change, Islam and immigration, then took a (short-lived) job as White House communications director. Hypocrite!

Barnaby Joyce slapped down colleagues for not properly checking whether they had dual citizenship. Hypocrite!

Brexiteers are democracy’s proudest proponents, but God forbid we have a second referendum. Hypocrites!

Liam Gallagher had no problems with publicly changing his mind about talk show host James Corden.

Liam Gallagher had no problems with publicly changing his mind about talk show host James Corden.

Photo: Kate Hedley

Environmental scientists fly in planes! The Coalition government raises taxes and spending!

Right-wingers don’t want to talk about gun control after a mass shooting, but do want to talk about immigration control after terror attacks. Hypocrites!

Left-wingers don’t want to talk about Islam after a terror attack, but do want to talk about the Catholic Church after sexual abuse scandals. Hypocrites!

The right doesn’t want free speech on Anzac Day but thinks it’s needed on race; the left doesn’t want unrestricted free speech on race but wonders if it’s time to talk frankly about Anzac Day. Hypocrites!

On social media, debates can quickly gurgle down hypocrisy plugholes. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway managed to spin the Harvey Weinstein scandal into a swing at her favourite punching bag, tweeting: “It took Hillary abt 5 minutes to blame NRA for madman’s rampage, but 5 days to sorta-kinda blame Harvey Weinstein 4 his sexually [sic] assaults.”

But Slate magazine’s chief political correspondent swung back: “Imagine the chutzpah it takes to write this tweet after helping elect, then working for, a man accused of sexual assault by a dozen women.”

So Kellyanne was a hypocrite for calling out hypocrisy.

(“The Harvey Weinstein scandal has exposed pretty much everyone as a hypocrite,” said one news.com.au headline.)

This kind of rhetorical death spiral is depressingly common on the internet.

The leader of the free world is great, really great at hypocrisy. His opponents gleefully dig out his old tweets that contradict his new positions, then grind their teeth as it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

Of course, there’s no escape. A lack of hypocrisy attracts criticism, too.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was recently asked if she would vote for Brexit in another referendum (she voted against it in the first, and now runs a government dedicated to making it happen).

It was a fiendish trap. Either she would have to disavow her former publicly expressed opinions on Brexit – hypocrite! – or reveal that she did not believe that her government’s biggest policy was good for the country – what a hypocrite!

Instead she fudged, deploying the ‘I don’t comment on hypotheticals’ dog-ate-my-homework excuse, the last resort of prevaricating pollies.

And naturally she was raked over the coals for it by the commentariat.

But it was only a trap because hypocrisy is held up as such a sin. If we accepted in public life – as we do, or should, in private – that people’s opinions can change, then being publicly persuaded that Brexit would be a good thing is an entirely reasonable (if debatable) position.

And if we accepted in public life – as we do, or should, in private – that sometimes we have to get on with a job that we don’t want to do, because it’s our job, and that we can be relied on to give it our best, then fulfilling a publicly voted wish to remove Britain from the European Union while privately thinking it’s not the best option is exactly how we would want our elected representatives to behave.

As Scaramucci himself put it: “Let me tell you one of the things I really hate about Washington. We have this political purity test on policy. So if I’m for something and then I’m against something then, all of a sudden, I’m a hypocrite”.

He added that leaders such as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan changed political views and parties.

His excuse cut no ice. But I was unable to find any piece that said why it cut no ice. For the sake of political reporting, the sheer fact of hypocrisy was enough to damn him.

More headlines, picked at random from a bottomless well:

“Coalition’s debt hypocrisy has trashed its brand”

“Bill Shorten’s British citizenship displays classic hypocrisy”

“Integrity- it’s all Greek to the hypocrites of the Right”

“Hypocrisy the winner in the same-sex marriage debate”

“Joss Whedon’s ex-wife warns he’s a hypocrite ‘preaching feminist ideals'”

“These Anzac Day ‘controversies’ reveal the huge hypocrisy of Australian conservatives”

An al-Jazeera catch-all headline, which really could have been about anything: “The hypocrisy of Australian democracy”.

Well, yeah. But now what?

Hypocrisy is the sin of pretending to virtue, from the old Greek hypokrisis, “acting on the stage”.

We use it as an indicator of bad character. We generally admire people with principles: we can predict and trust their actions. Even in our enemies, we consider consistency of morals a good trait.

In a representative democracy, character is important. We vote someone into power and then we trust that for the next three years they’ll behave as we hoped. How can we know they will? We take cues from their character.

If someone pretends to have moral beliefs, but acts contrary to them, then that’s a bad sign for their trustworthiness in a position of power or influence. Or is it?

Hypocrisy is in all of us. Only the maddest of saints could deny it in themselves.

Ideals are often in contradiction. Safety conflicts with freedom, freedom with equality, equality with opportunity, opportunity with safety. We can promise to live up to each and every ideal, then find ourselves in positions where that’s impossible, or at least inadvisable.

And, in fact, we all know this. We’ve all lived lives, we know that sometimes you do the not-best thing, even if we’d criticise that behaviour in others if we didn’t know the whole story.

Could it be that we don’t actually care so much about hypocrisy, except when we identify it in our enemies?

Philosopher Susan Wolf has written on people she called “moral saints”.

“I don’t know whether there are any moral saints,” she writes. “But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.”

A moral saint is someone as morally worthy as can be. A moral saint would be “patient, considerate, even-tempered, hospitable, charitable in thought as well as in deed, very reluctant to make negative judgments of other people, careful not to favour some people over others”.

In other words, a nightmare. Devoting all their time to feeding the hungry and feeding the sick and raising money for charity. No time for reading novels, playing the oboe or practising their backhand. No time for the comparatively petty troubles of friends and family, when there are children starving in Africa.

The moral saint neither tells nor appreciates mean jokes (making them a terrible movie companion, if you are partial to a comedy). They abhor gourmet cooking as a waste of resources, so don’t bother going out for a meal before the movie, either.

A moral saint is either blind to the pleasures that most of us take in life, or completely rejects them. They would be either miserable or weird.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for goodness, Wolf says. Instead, appreciate there’s more to life than utter goodness: “A person may be perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral.”

In the end, prosecuting hypocrisy is pointless.

You have found someone whose actions contradict their words.

You are on the slippery slope to outrage. If you like their words you’re not going to be happy with their actions, and vice-versa. How dare they leave you with no choice but to be angry! It’s their fault for putting you in this position!

Whichever route we took, we have arrived precisely nowhere.

To find hypocrisy is to find the “gotcha” moment, the superficial win. It’s the reason that scouring the world for hypocrisy is virtually the raison d’etre of tabloid journalism.

You don’t need to debate the issues if you have your “gotcha” moment. You don’t need to ask if someone’s actions are more moral than their words, or vice-versa, if you can show they don’t match up. Which is much easier.

We should judge people on what they do and say. Let it all add up – don’t subtract one from another and deal with the remainder.

I’m on the side of Liam Gallagher, who changed his mind about talk show host James Corden, getting over some spat that I can’t be bothered to Google the history of, and saying that although he had previously judged Corden a “knobhead”, he now rated him a “fine chap”.

“Got that wrong, as you were,” Gallagher added. “I don’t give a f— if people think I’m a c—.

“If I’m that kind of person to blow my own trumpet, and do stop me if I am, but when I’m wrong I’m rite. I mean when I’m rite I’m wrong. LG x”.

So that’s alright then.

Nick Miller

Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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