Saturday, April 02, 2005

Hypocrisy

There is a fine post at Mode for Caleb on the subject of hypocrisy, and how overuse of this term impairs discussions, especially on the web where anonymity can embolden someone to use rhetorical bombs they might otherwise be more careful about:
Even more importantly, if diagnosing hypocrisy requires knowing motives, the diagnosis cannot be made as a blunt generalization. For example, it certainly may be true that many members of Congress have been putting on a performance with regard to the Schiavo case. But it hardly follows from this that every supporter of Schiavo's parents is hypocritical or insincere. The reverse is also true: if some pro-life protester outside Schiavo's hospice can be proven hypocritical, or even if some Congressional leader dissimulates, neither fact counts as evidence that every member of Congress interested in the case was interested for base reasons. .. I don't want to be mistaken here: I'm not saying that it harms democratic conversation to point out the inconsistencies in a position. But not all inconsistency is hypocritical; people can be unaware of inconsistencies in their positions, while hypocrites are aware of inconsistency but indifferent to it. We are all at various points unaware of inconsistency in our beliefs, and one goal of democratic conversation should be to lead our interlocutors to greater consistency. But when we blanket a position with the charge of hypocrisy, we simply stop at pointing out the inconsistency and attributing it to false motives. Charges of hypocrisy do not move us towards resolving that inconsistency. For example, suppose someone supports preemptive war but also opposes abortion. It could be that this person is a hypocrite, but it could also be that she does not see any inconsistency in her position. In that case, it behooves us to ask her how she makes those positions cohere. If we sense that those positions do not cohere, we ought to offer our reasons for thinking so. But this conversation will be much more difficult if we simply assume -- before the exchange of reasons -- that our interlocutor is wearing a mask, or deliberately hiding bones in a whitewashed tomb.
I've had the very same thought many a time: don't make assumptions about other people's motives, which are always hidden. Doing so is an attempt to control the field of battle and win a battle doomed to be nothing but a clash of empty rhetoric. If you want to explore ideas, especially ideas new and unfamiliar, don't do it. I don't claim to succeed on this all of the time, but I'm aware of it and I'm trying. It's an old idea, by the way. It falls under what Christians would traditionally call basic Charity. Marxists, and schools based on it, tend to dismiss things like Charity as empty bourgesois shells that exist simply to impair those silly enough to think their content is real. The trouble is that if everyone makes the Marxist assumption, dialogue is impossible. Marxism has generated a great deal of literature, however, so what am I talking about? It's simple, really. Such scholars extend a degree of Charity to those they find in some way agreeable. Since only agreeable ideas are accepted, the discussion rapidly becomes inbred and stale, and we wind up with texts like these. I'll never get back the time I wasted as an undergrad, reading Jaques Derrida. Am I a hypocrite for what I just said? No, and here is why. My description of Marxist rhetoric is just that. I have said nothing about why someone might choose to use it or what they hope to gain since, in truth, I don't know. Thanks to Sirius for the link. Also, check out this e-mail graphic icon generator for fooling spambots that I found off Mode for Caleb.

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