By focusing solely on political hypocrisy, we risk forgetting what really matters
Photo: Chatham House, Flickr
It is the 1990s. Everyone says that music is the best it’s been for decades and Britannia is cool. But you aren’t cool. You’re short of money, lonely and frustrated. Your boss ignores you and you see your hopes of promotion going with his dismissive gaze. The man or woman you desire has made it clear they have no interest.
As for your alleged friends, they are happy for you to tag along to the pub after work or go home alone: they don’t care one way or another.
You want someone to reassure you that the supposedly magnificent world where the Berlin Wall has fallen and liberal democracy has triumphed is a sham. You want to see its powerful men and women humiliated, as you are humiliated, and their pious homilies revealed for the lies they are.
Naturally, you turn to the media for comfort.
The tabloids are like evangelical preachers denouncing the sinners in their midst. Politicians who lecture the rest of us on the need to follow traditional morality and “get back to basics” are screwing their researchers and paying for the company of “actresses”. They’re “sleazy” – to use slang of the day.
You notice that the BBC is too genteel to go into the details of sex scandals. Instead, its interviewers work themselves into rages about, well, nothing at all.
Sometime in the distant future, the obituaries of both Michael Howard, a leading Conservative politician of the time, and Jeremy Paxman, a leading broadcaster, will include a famous scene in which Paxman asked the same question twelve times and twelve times Howard ducked answering it directly.
Paxman was not asking about a great issue. He wanted to resolve an utterly obscure point on whether Howard had overruled the head of the prison service. The audience did not care about the substance of prison policy. What entertained them was the spectacle of public figures revealed as dodging hypocrites.
Hypocrisy comes from the ancient Greek for acting, hypokrisis. A generation ago, the charge of putting on a show seemed the worst accusation you could throw at people in power.
The charismatic politicians of the era Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were so successful at wooing the public their charm became grounds for suspicion, as their audiences realised they were being played. Average politicians, like Michael Howard, Hillary Clinton and Gordon Brown were careful not to give anything away to the predatory media.
But, as the Cambridge political theorist David Runciman nicely put it, their very determination not to be caught out in a lie made them look wooden and false. They “could not dispel the impression of duplicity created by the mask they wore to face the public.”
The world where hypocrisy was the worst issue we had to worry about appeared to have died, until the double standards of Boris Johnson revived it. The 1990s were a “holiday from history,” and few saw the rolling crises of the 21st century coming.
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair won by playing down the differences between left and right, and convinced large sections of the population that all politicians were the same in the process. Boredom so gripped the country that 40 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote in the 2001 general election.
If you have only a minute to damn a rival, don’t explain why they’re wrong –say they’re a hypocrite
That indifference went with 9/11, the anti-terror wars, the banking crash, the great stagnation, the rise of authoritarian power and covid. How small our worries about spin seem now.
As we should have known, hypocrisy is at once the most effective and most trivial of charges. If you have only a minute to damn a rival, don’t explain why he or she is wrong – say they’re a hypocrite. Here’s a leftist who says she wants an equal society, did you know she sends her child to a private school?
You admire that Conservative who supports free enterprise, wise up, mug, don’t you realise businesses are bribing him to bring them government contracts?
On a personal level, the charge of hypocrisy is devastating, which is why propagandists reach for it. Politically, it is irrelevant. The argument for egalitarianism and the case for free enterprise are not weakened by the hypocritical behaviour of individual Tories and Corbynistas – unless you can show that their ideas would never work because all left-wingers take whatever privileges they can grab, or free markets always hide corporate corruption.
In her literate and humane Ordinary Vices, the moral philosopher Judith Shklar makes the case for treating hypocrisy as secondary to cruelty. We overvalue hypocrisy’s importance, she says, because we still live in religion’s shadow.
Religion and every messianic political creed must tolerate cruelty because they mandate the punishment of unbelievers. Therefore, “thou shalt not be cruel” is not one of Ten Commandments, and cruelty is not included in the Seven Deadly Sins. By contrast, hypocrisy is damned because God can see into your soul and know your false motives.
Leaders in liberal democracies are particularly at risk. They are not in place because of their birth or by divine right. It is not hard to prove most are more interested in power than their principles: if they were not they would lose every election.
They must build coalitions and smother their objections to people they disagree with. As must we all. Civilisation in a diverse society depends on citizens not pushing their political or religious disagreements too far.
If they cannot restrain themselves, they create countries like the USA, so riven with partisan loathing they feel as if they are on the verge of civil war. To maintain peace, we must play the hypocrite and pretend our beliefs and hatreds do not matter as much as they do.
The grand claims liberal democracies make about the sovereignty of the people are also doomed to disappoint. Do they mean the people get a vote once every four or five years, which is hardly a stirring freedom, or that they are continually consulted, which is impossible for any government to do?
In my career, the problem of what you say when tyrannical ideas threaten your country has always led me into a dangerous dilemma. In theory, it is easy to prove that the United Kingdom or Germany is in every way superior to Putin’s Russia or Taliban Afghanistan. But in practice, if you make that case too hard you run the danger of minimising the injustices around you. If you don’t, you end up as apologist for tyranny and terror.
Unusually for an argument in philosophy, there is actual evidence to support the notion that hypocrisy should not dominate our moral thinking. The revolt against the spin and artifice of the 1990s did not produce better societies. It produced Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Say what you like about them but they do not hide who they are. Instead, they use the undoubted hypocrisies of liberalism to justify their own power. If you watch Russian propaganda, you will see that many of its stories of the failings of the West are true in every detail. But the failings are not exposed because Putin and his allies want to offer a better future, as the Soviet communists of the 20th century claimed they could.
Rather the message is “everything is corrupt, everyone is a hypocrite, so no one has the right to criticise us”. Like the men and women of the 1990s who so enjoyed the sleaze scandals, they relish the hypocrisy of others, because it justifies their own vices and makes it easier to live with their smallness.
And then, of course, there is Boris Johnson. He must be outraged by the destruction of his reputation. He made it clear that he was a chancer who would get away with anything he could.
Now he is damned as a hypocrite for being true to his authentic self. I am not defending him. Throwing parties in the very centre of government when you banned everyone else from throwing parties so drips with aristocratic contempt for the ethics of democratic life that he deserves to go down in history as one of Britain’s greatest charlatans.
But I hope the reaction against him does not take us back to the mental world of the 1990s. We ought to have learned by now that deeds not motives matter most, and that what women and men do to limit injustice and cruelty is more important than why they do it.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and the author of “What’s Left” and “You Can’t Read This Book”. He is currently working on a book about journalism and power