“Hypocrisy-policing” is a popular genre of tabloid journalism. When a public figure flaunts their political opinions, tabloids will often gleefully report on (actual or perceived) inconsistencies between those opinions, and the lifestyle of the person expressing them. So you’re an environmentalist? How come you’re constantly jetting around the globe, then? So you oppose private schools? How come you’re sending your own children to one, then? So you’re a socialist? How come you’re so rich, then – why don’t you share some of your own wealth first, before you talk about confiscating everyone else’s? So you believe in car-free cities? Presumably that doesn’t include your own brand-new Mercedes-Maybach S-Class, then?
Although the targets of hypocrisy-policing are usually people I would consider my political opponents, I was nonetheless never a huge fan of it. The problem with hypocrisy-policing is that it diverts our attention towards the messenger, and thus away from the message. But it is usually the message that needs debunking. The main problem with socialism or hairshirt environmentalism, for example, is not the hypocrisy of its messengers, it’s the fact that the message itself is profoundly wrong.
It is also a short-sighted strategy. If your main argument against environmentalism is the high-carbon lifestyle of many of its proponents – what do you do if an environmentalist comes along who does live an ascetic, low-carbon lifestyle? If your main argument against socialism is that a lot of socialists are posh – what do you do if a socialist comes along who does generously give a lot of their money to charitable causes?
Yet I participate in hypocrisy-policing. Curious!
So much for the downsides of hypocrisy-policing.
On social media, however, the pendulum has arguably swung too far into the opposite direction in recent years. For this, I blame the inflationary use of the “Mr Gotcha” meme (a meme which I am slightly obsessed with; I have written about it before, in a different context).
The purpose of the meme is to make accusations of hypocrisy look stupid, and ridiculous. It is therefore perfectly suited for the social media age. On social media, you do not win arguments by showing that you are right, and that your opponents are wrong. You win by attaching a positive social image to your own position, and to portray your opponents’ position as cringeworthy, and embarrassing. The Mr Gotcha meme has largely achieved this. It has become a knee-jerk response, which serves to shut down any accusations of inconsistency.
For all its faults, though, hypocrisy-policing also has its uses. It can act as a check on holier-than-thou sanctimony, and a disincentive against getting too preachy. Also, attacking the messenger can raise questions about the message itself. If an ideology’s adherents consistently fail to live up to their ideals, maybe there is just something impractical about that ideology.
We should not hold our political opponents to unrealistic standards. But by and large, people should try to act in accordance with their professed ideals where it is practically feasible to do so at a tolerable cost. When somebody consistently falls short of that, it is legitimate to point that out.
But what does “practically feasible” mean, and what constitutes a “tolerable cost”? When is it acceptable to criticise a system, an organisation, or a social arrangement despite participating in it, and when is that just old-fashioned hypocrisy?
Basic economics can give us a few clues here.
Some goods are characterised by network effects. This means that their usefulness grows, typically disproportionately, with the number of users.
Being the sole owner of a telephone is pointless, because there would be nobody you could call with it. A telephone only becomes useful once there is at least one other user, and the more users there are, the more useful it becomes. The same applies to most other means of communication, including language itself. Other examples are means of payment, some types of software, laws and customs, and industry standards such as weights and measurements.
The flipside of that coin is that once a network good is widely used, it becomes costly and impractical to opt out of its use unilaterally. You can switch network goods, but you cannot make that switch alone. Other people need to do it too.
If you live in Britain, you could not unilaterally opt out of the English language, and switch to French, Italian or Dutch instead. You could not unilaterally opt out of the British pound, and use Swiss francs, or gold, or a cryptocurrency instead. You could not unilaterally decide to opt out of left-hand driving, and switch to driving on the right (even if this were somehow legal).
But you are still entitled to the view that gold is a more stable currency than the pound, or that Italian sounds more elegant than English, or that driving on the right-hand side of the road makes more sense. There is nothing hypocritical about publicly declaring that you would prefer Britain to be on the gold standard, to be a multilingual country, or to adopt a right-hand traffic system, without changing your own behaviour in any way.
Therefore, my colleague Chris Snowdon is entitled to write his rants about how much he hates WhatsApp, while continuing to use WhatsApp himself. Peter Hitchens is entitled to his eccentric view that British Summer Time is an imposition by Kaiser Wilhelm II (don’t ask!), while adhering to British Summer Time himself. The active Twitter user who tweets obsessively about how much they hate “this hellsite” is not necessarily being inconsistent or hypocritical either.
A coordination problem is a situation where everyone would be better off if they followed a particular course of action, X, but for each individual, there is an incentive to deviate from that, and follow course of action Y instead. In other words, we all want everyone else to do X, but individually, we all want to do Y.
This was, implicitly, the justification for lockdown: we all want other people to stay at home and stop spreading the virus, but we do not necessarily want to stay at home ourselves. Most environmental problems fall into this category: we all want other people to, for example, reduce their carbon emissions, but we do not necessarily want to reduce our own.
Is it hypocritical to preach X while doing Y instead?
It depends on the scale. If you do not buy your rounds at the pub, or if you do not contribute to the honesty box in your office, but pontificate about the virtue of honesty in the abstract, then yes, you are a hypocrite. However, there is not much point in you unilaterally giving up flying or driving, because your individual contribution to global carbon emissions is miniscule. So it is not necessarily hypocritical for an environmentalist to campaign for green policies without changing their own personal behaviour.
That said: if you are a high-profile campaigner or a celebrity, you are in a position to influence other people. Your own carbon emissions may be trivial, but the combined emissions of your fans (and of the people they influence) may not be. If you enjoy the glamour that comes with being a role model, then it is not unreasonable to expect you to act like one as well.
Institutions and their activities
Is it hypocritical to criticise an institution while benefitting from what it does?
This depends on the nature of the criticism. What exactly is it that you are opposed to? Are you merely opposed to a specific institution, in the way it currently operates? Or are you, on a more fundamental level, opposed to what that institution does?
Let’s take critics of “Big Pharma”. Some critics of Big Pharma believe that medicine should not be a for-profit business. These people are not against the existence of modern medicine. They just want it to be delivered in a different way. You can take the view that their criticism is shallow, and that their alternatives would be nothing like as innovative as what we currently have, but “being wrong” is different from “being hypocritical”.
However, some critics of Big Pharma rally are opposed to modern medicine, and prefer “natural” or “spiritual” alternatives. I know one such person who, the moment he got seriously ill, quickly dropped his healing crystals, and sought treatment at a (private for-profit) hospital. I’m glad he did – but I would also describe that behaviour as hypocritical.
Or take the context in which the meme is most commonly used: a socialist tweeting some anti-capitalist platitude, and somebody replying, “You tweeted that from an iPhone!” Now, unless they are “anarcho-primitivists” or fans of “Degrowth”, anti-capitalists are not against iPhones. What they believe is that a non-capitalist economy will be at least as good at producing iPhones as a capitalist one, or better. That is empirically wrong, but again, being wrong is different from being hypocritical.
And finally, I sometimes get called “hypocritical” because I use the NHS (or rather, would use it if one could still get appointments; I actually haven’t used it in years) despite having written a book calling for its abolition. But then – if an NHS purist lived in Switzerland or Germany, they would be using private healthcare (while still disapproving of it in principle). I would not call them “hypocrites” for that.
Politically weaponised accusations of hypocrisy are often misplaced. There can be sound economic reasons why we sometimes participate in systems, institutions and practices that we disapprove of, and would rather see replaced with something else.
Nonetheless, there are also plenty of sectors where none of the above arguments apply, and where, “Yet you participate in X! Curious!” is a perfectly valid critique.
Anti-consumerism, for example, is almost always hypocritical. You can unilaterally adopt a much simpler lifestyle if you want to. Claims that “the system” is somehow “forcing” you to consume things you don’t want is a lame excuse. If you cannot practice a spartan lifestyle – stop preaching it.
If you use trendy slogans like “Defund the police”, but then turn to the police the moment you get mugged or burgled, then yes, you are a hypocrite. You can unilaterally adopt a forgiving, clement attitude towards criminals, if you hold the fashionable belief that they are blameless victims of social forces beyond their control. You can unilaterally refrain from using police services, if you hold the fashionable belief that the police are an “oppressive”, “bourgeois” institution.
It is not hypocritical to be a posh socialist. But if you are one of those socialists who love “the working class” as a romanticised abstraction, while being snobbish towards individual working-class people, your opponents have a right to point that out. This is especially so when you have a habit of acting like you speak on behalf of “the working class”, and derive a sense of moral authority from it.
There is a hypocrisy of the Right as well. If you claim to reject left-wing identity politics, but then suddenly appeal to the Left’s victimhood categories when it suits you, you are acting hypocritically.
Right-wingers claim to oppose “cancel culture” and “call-out culture”, but this is not always a matter of principle: it simply reflects the balance of cultural power in Britain. Right-wingers rarely have the social clout to “cancel” or “call out” anyone. Realistically, only the Left can do that. But of course, Leftists sometimes turn on their own, and I have seen right-wingers gleefully joining in on such occasions. That is hypocritical behaviour, and it merits a “Yet you participate in call-out/cancel culture. Curious!” response.
So in short, if people point out a genuine gap between what you practice, and what you preach, you should either adjust your preaching, or your practice (or a combination of both). Stop hiding behind the Mr Gotcha meme. A bit of consistency is good, actually. And feel free to call me out when you see me deviate from what I’ve just written.