So, apparently some members of the press are pegging Prince Charles as a hypocrite for chartering a private jet for his South American lecture tour on climate change. The story creates similar reverberations to the one that Al Gore’s 10,000 square foot house consumes 20 times the energy of an average American home, while he buys carbon offsets from a company he partially owns.
These charges of hypocrisy– and I’m not deciding whether either example truly constitutes hypocrisy– got me thinking about just what hypocrisy means and how we typically react to it.
1. The first common reaction to hypocrisy seems perfectly sensible: anger. Indeed, this response is wired into our common sense. As a matter of simple morality, we know that is just plain wrong for someone to tell others to do a thing that person is unwilling to do himself– and it makes us mad. People have a natural aversion from being told what to do, especially when the actual behavior of the person dictating tends to demonstrate that he doesn’t really believe the prescribed actions are necessary.
2. The second typical reaction is related to the first, but can be potentially harmful. People often confuse their natural anger of step 1 as having bearing on truth of the matter asserted by the adjudged hypocrite. I think that’s at least partially why stories like the ones above (again, not that they actually illustrate hypocrisy, just that the perception makes them examples for the sake of argument) get so much mileage with the public. I have seen people, most implicitly, appeal to the Al Gore example above as an argument that global warming is not happening. Similarly, I have observed countless people pass upon the ultimate truth of religions based on the actions of a few alleged adherents.
Someone’s failure to live up to his own rhetoric cannot make the rhetoric any more true or less true. I should be forced to deal with the claims of global warming, regardless of how big Al Gore’s house is. To write off his assertions because his house guzzles energy is probably just because I’m looking for an excuse to write off his assertions. And therein lies the danger; it’s too easy to avoid really thinking about something if we put too much stock in what hypocrisy means.
Now, I think there is a counter-argument to what I’ve just said, and it arises when a person is or claims to be in a unique position relative to the factuality of something. In such a case, hypocrisy can be used as circumstantial evidence that the thing is not factual. To take an awkward example that is coming to me as I watch House Hunters (Oregon!), suppose a weatherman, with his specialized knowledge, tells his viewers to brace for severe weather and hail that will surely come shorty after noon. I look out my window at 12:15pm, and see this same weatherman walking down the street, without a care or umbrella, dressed for a perfect summer day. I will either think he’s foolish, or that he doesn’t really believe in the hailstorm. And because weathermen typically have degrees in meteorology these days, I would say he’s in a better position than me to know whether a storm is approaching or not. Thus, his contradictory behavior–his hypocrisy– provides evidence as to what is true and what is not.
Unfortunately, however, I think we too often use hypocrisy as an excuse, rather than thinking about whether it could really be circumstantial evidence (which usually could never completely settle the matter, anyway). What I’m saying is that people, myself included, too easily interpret hypocrisy of others as affirmation of the truth of their opposing positions without thinking about it.