If Senator Larry Craig opposed gay rights and said hostile things about gays while occasionally soliciting gay sex, he was hypocritical. Hypocrisy is one of the easiest faults to prove, but it is not one of the worst faults, especially in a leader.

Hypocrisy is easy to establish, once the facts are out, because it involves a contradiction between the person’s statements and his actions. (Likewise, lies are evident when a person’s statements contradict what he knows or believes.) You can have very few moral commitments and very little knowledge of issues, and yet detect other people’s hypocrisy.

But what if Larry Craig were completely heterosexual and totally faithful to his wife, yet anti-gay? In my view, his position would then reflect injustice and intolerance. These are worse faults than hypocrisy; they have far more serious consequences. But many Americans are uncomfortable about charging anyone with injustice. That’s because: (1) the charge is controversial, given that definitions of justice vary; (2) the accusation reflects deep moral commitments, which are incompatible with moral relativism or skepticism; and (3) the claim requires knowledge of issues and policies. The issue of gay rights happens to be relatively easy to understand, but I would argue that Senator Craig’s votes on economic policy display equally serious injustice. To make that claim, I have to follow politics fairly closely and develop strong moral commitments.

Thus I think that Americans who are disconnected from politics and issues tend to jump on evidence of hypocrisy as if it were very momentous (and interesting) news, whereas far worse faults are ignored.

(It’s not even crystal-clear that Larry Craig is a hypocrite, because one could oppose certain rights for gays and yet be gay or bisexual, without a contradiction. If Craig is a hypocrite, it’s not because of his policy positions but because he falsely denies being gay himself–or so his accusers claim. I happen to feel considerable sympathy for a gay person who hides his orientation, given the general climate of intolerance and the tendency of police to entrap gay men. But hypocrisy, while not the worst moral fault, is wrong. The wrongness, it seems to me, lies in the failure to treat other people as responsible and rational agents who can make decisions on the basis of facts. Instead, the hypocrite feels it necessary to deceive in order to get the results he wants. This is manipulative; it is using someone else as a means to one’s ends, not as an end in himself. But of course there are many forms of political manipulation that do not involve hypocrisy–for example, fear-mongering and exaggeration.)

5 thoughts on “hypocrisy

  1. airth10

    Thank you for that. It was one of your best posts.

    Hypocrisy is human. There is no one who can say they are free of it. However, most of us keep it in check. The balancing and managing of our hypocrisies is what makes most of us the grown-ups and sophisticates we are.

  2. anotherpanacea

    I’ve been put in the position of defending Craig, and this argument about hypocrisy has seemed the best to me. It’s similar to Arendt’s argument about the obsession with purity of Saint Just, and the way that charges of hypocrisy played out in the French Revolution. Too many people who are otherwise progressive seem to celebrate the enforcement of unjust laws when they happen to ensnare their political opponents. (I’m reminded of a similar hypocrisy debacle involving a Columbia student named Matt Sanchez.) It seems we need to remind ourselves of the primacy of the act over the actor, the policy over the politican. Thanks!

  3. Michael Weiksner

    This is a great post. Talking to my friends, I have been pointing out that hypocracy says something about Craig as a person and nothing about the morality of his political positions on gays. For example, suppose he often railed against murderers and then committed murder himself. Clearly, his personal hypocracy does not imply that murder is ok!

    But another unanswered question raised by this lewd affair: why does it seem that so many anti-gay politicians seem to fall into these scandals? Might there actually be some connection between personal hypocracy and intolerant policy positions? I don’t know.

  4. airth10

    I would think that an intolerance can comes from a repulsion. In the case of Craig his intolerance may have come from self-repulsion, from the idea that he could be latently gay, thus his intolerant policy position, so as to fight his own demon. He was threatened by the idea. Craig may have had a moment of weakness in that washroom and succumbed to the desire, hence the hypocrisy position.

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