Hypocrisy is a hot topic right now. Anyone familiar with social media will have found it hard to miss that we are on high alert to spot and broadcast double standards, inconsistencies and hypocrisy wherever we find them. For the UK and US, this is undoubtedly a symptom of a much larger sense of division and distrust following Brexit and the Trump election. We are primed to read the ‘other side’ uncharitably, to look for and pounce on evidence of their dishonesty, duplicity & general nefariousness. Political Twitter, in particular, is full of double screenshots showing the inconsistency and double standards of politicians, community leaders, social commentators and activists, often accompanied by the words ‘Life comes at you fast.’ Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a veritable ‘hypocrisy-mine.’
Of course, ‘spin’ is part of politics. It would be naive and unrealistic to expect politicians to try to evaluate their own party’s decisions and that of the opposition impartially. Among activist groups, religious groups and political lobbyists, inconsistency is also hard to avoid. The more ideologically motivated a person is, the more difficult it is to avoid unconscious bias. Bias is an error rather than a deception like hypocrisy, but it can be very difficult for an observer to distinguish between them. Motivated reasoning is almost impossible to avoid and tribalism comes naturally to us. So too, to a certain degree, does hypocrisy. This is because even the most conscientious of us fail to live up to our own stated standards at times and then feel reluctant to admit to the failing.
The intense focus on hypocrisy right now could almost lead one to suspect it was the cause of the divisions, but this is unlikely to be the case. Much bigger issues are at stake here; primarily territorial and economic ones. The focus on hypocrisy is almost certainly a symptom of political instability, a sense of threat and a crisis of leadership; an evolved response to uncertainty and distrust that can usefully be considered using evolutionary psychology and moral foundations theory. I want to do that looking specifically at the failings of the Left. This will lead me to be accused of bias towards to the Right. This is a mistake. My bias is in favour of the Left. It is the problems of the Left I want to see fixed and the Left I want made consistent and worthy of public confidence. Reasonable Rightists are addressing the problems on their own side and thinking about ways to get their own house in order.
The Left and the Right hurl accusations of inconsistency, double-standards and hypocrisy at each other probably in equal measure but this doesn’t quite work in the same way. Conservative moral foundations draw more heavily on loyalty, patriotism, tradition and a sense of fairness based on keeping what one has earned or has a territorial claim to. Conservatives can therefore argue consistently for the morality of prioritising one’s own group interests over another. The liberal Left, on the other hand, traditionally finds its moral foundations in an expansive sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of everyone and a fairness based on sharing resources and evening up outcomes. When liberal leftism is universal and focuses on overcoming differences and providing everyone with the same rights, opportunities and freedoms, there is a consistency of principle. However, with the decided shift to identity politics and cultural relativity, the Left became vulnerable to charges of unfairness, illiberalism, inconsistency and double standards. These charges are made when feminists have slut walks to protest (rightly) women being judged on their clothing, but then speak positively of gender-specific Islamic modestly codes; when Christian bakers are condemned (rightly) for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but a gay pride march through a Muslim area is condemned as racist; when negative generalisations about race, sex, sexuality or gender identity are considered bigoted when aimed at people of colour, women or LGBTs, but not when directed at white people, men, heterosexual or the cisgendered.
These accusations are framed very frequently as ‘hypocrisy’ but this is not quite accurate. It is not that these Leftists betray their stated principles, but that the principles have changed from universal liberalism to cultural relativity and identity politics. The aim continues to be equality and justice but the method has changed. Rather than upholding liberal principles universally and working for a level playing field regardless of identity or culture, it now regards all cultural norms (even illiberal ones) as equally worthy of respect and non-western ones unfairly devalued. The identitarian Left attempts to redress this imbalance by promoting those groups and cultures seen as marginalised and devaluing those seen as dominant. Universally liberal principles are rejected for cultural relativity and, accordingly, attempts to judge activism by universally liberal principles will show them failing. I wrote about the influence of postmodernism on this shift here and here.
David Ernst addresses the significance of postmodernism and its connection with perceptions of hypocrisy in his essay, ‘Donald Trump is the First President to Turn Postmodernism Against Itself,’ Ernst describes Trump as the ‘political anti-hero’, the ‘complicated bad guy’ who turns postmodern moral ambiguity on itself. If a consistent principle underlying morality is denied, accusations of moral failure are incoherent. The worst sexism, racism and homophobia cannot be worse than activism against those prejudices. The feeling is, Ernst argues, “Let’s play by their own rules of relativism and subjectivity, dismiss their baseless accusations, and hammer them mercilessly where it hurts them the most: their hypocrisy.”
“Heroes who stand for traditionally good things in a world where everything supposedly “good” has long been discredited are corny Dudley Do-Rights who are at best too stupid to know better. Antiheroes, by contrast, ingratiate themselves with their audiences for their gritty realism and their candour, no matter how bad they are.”
An anti-hero who gives the impression of plain-speaking becomes attractive simply by seeming more honest and consistent.
Liberal leftists have claimed a moral high-ground by standing for traditionally (in the liberal tradition) good things: social justice, equality, freedom. This is encapsulated by Michelle Obama’s words ‘When they go low, we go high,’ but the moral ambiguity of the cultural relativity and identity politics that has crept into Leftism undermines this. Ernst describes the postmodern Leftism as another Utopian vision ‘that seek(s) to remake human beings into something alien to their nature‘ (my emphasis.) I’d suggest this is exactly right. This conception of social justice is counter-intuitive to most people. It sits well with neither the sense of fairness of traditional liberalism which seeks to remove barriers and favour no group nor that of traditional conservatism which prioritises succeeding on one’s own merits and loyalty to one’s own culture.
Patrick McNamara and David Trumbull’s book An Evolutionary Psychology of Leader-Follower Relations provides some insight into human nature and how we pick our leaders. McNamara and Trumbull identify two styles of leadership: “(A) prestige oriented style where the leader attains his leadership position via a sterling reputation for high moral character, high intelligence and high accomplishment” and “a dominance-oriented strategy where the leader attains his leadership position via an ability to politically manipulate and dominate his opponents and use force when necessary to do so“ (pp. 1-2) The “dominance orientated individual will not emphasise learning and rhetoric, character and info.”
A good leader will balance both styles appropriately to the goals of the group and the specific threats and problems needing to be overcome.
“Both styles of leadership find their evolutionary roots in the need to develop co-operative enterprises by developing systems of trust between individuals with differing genetic interests as well as punishing free-riders or individuals who seek to benefit from cooperative interests without contributing any of the work required to succeed in these cooperative enterprises.”
Leadership, in large part, is about ensuring fairness internally as well as protecting the group from external dangers. The authors look at several leaders from Roman history, and evaluate their successes and failures in achieving this balance of prestige and dominance leadership in relation to internal and external dangers.
Hypocrisy is primarily an internal problem because it relates to our need to be able to trust our own group. Our liar-detection and concept of ‘reputation’ are products of early humanity’s drive to survive, argue McNamara and Trunbull. We became suspicious and alert to being deceived to detect free-riders and those working against group interests, but these abilities are limited. “In evolutionary terms, every time a population of individuals became good at detecting these liars, the liars became better at concealing their lies…a never-ending arms race” (p. 11) The concept of ‘reputation’ is much more reliable because it is a form of ongoing evaluation of an individual who must prove him or herself honest on every occasion. “The development of memory about individuals” enables us to determine those “who are trustworthy and honest” and “then the role of reputation becomes doubly important for cooperation.” “If you can remember who failed to co-operate or deceived you in the past, you can avoid that person in the future” (p. 12). We could think of ‘reputation’ as a form of group hypothesis testing. An individual can never be proven to be honest or possess any virtue, but repeated confirming examples strengthens the hypothesis and the reputation whilst a single contradictory example that can destroy both. The realisation that a good reputation is undeserved; that we have been deceived by a false presentation of virtue; that the individual is a hypocrite results in anger, punishment or ostracism. This response is self-protective or group-protective. It is especially important to survival not to be misled by a leader, so ‘one evolutionary source of leadership is the value placed on character and reputation by early human groups.”
Research by Jillian Jordan et al suggests that this need to be able to evaluate the honesty and virtues of others continues to drive our intense dislike of hypocrisy. Jordan et al conducted a study in which they tested people’s reactions to anecdotes in which people 1) admitted to wrongdoing, 2) lied about doing wrong and 3) declared something to be wrong but were found to do it anyway. They found that the latter group produced most anger, indicating that people found the deception about the individual’s moral virtue more abhorrent than the wrongdoing itself. A moral failing if admitted to is just a flaw, and the individual receives credit for making others aware of it. A straightforward denial was perceived as wrong but a straightforward lie. Doing something wrong having moralised about it being wrong is hypocrisy and this was perceived most negatively.
Say Jordan et al:
“We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication — not to a failure of will or a weakness of character.”
It seems likely, given McNamara and Trunbull’s research, that in evolutionary terms, this kind of false positive – thinking some virtuous when they were not – is likely to have been more costly to group security than a group member with admitted flaws or one who denied wrongdoing but had never claimed to be virtuous. We can see how this ties in with David Ernst’s evaluation of Trump as an ‘anti-hero.’ We could see too how Donald’s Trump’s straightforward denial of having said things he is on record as having said could be experienced by his supporters as less of a moral failing than the perceived hypocrisy of the virtue-claiming Left. This certainly appears catastrophically damning to his detractors on both Left and Right. However, if Ernst and those studies which have related Trump’s popularity to the perception of his lack of ‘political correctness’ as refreshing plain speaking are correct, it is a minor issue to supporters motivated to rationalise it away.
If we have been consistently outraged by hypocrisy since early humanity, why are we hearing so much about it right now? I have argued that, when it comes to accusations against the Left, the internal threat is that of a specific and dominant segment of it espousing views which go against common understanding of justice and equality. A sense of external threat exists too and further heightens the anger against the culturally relativist, identity-focused Left. The refugee crisis has been polarising and produced an urgent need for control, for strong leadership, consistency, honesty and reassurance. Jonathan Haidt’s ‘When and Why Nationalism Beat Globalism’ and Ross Douthat’s ‘In Search of a Good Emperor’ address this.
Jonathan Haidt argues that,
“Countries seem to move in two directions, along two axes: first, as they industrialize, they move away from “traditional values” in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward “secular rational” values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from “survival values” emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward “self-expression” or “emancipative values” that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone.”
When this attitude is applied to the refugee crisis, it results in a call for mass immigration, if not open borders. A borderless world, says Haidt, is ‘a vision of heaven for multicultural globalists. But it’s naiveté, sacrilege, and treason for nationalists.’ Globalists have a tendency to dismiss the concerns of nationalists as ‘racism’ but this, Haidt argues, misses the point.
“Nationalists see patriotism as a virtue; they think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving. This is a real moral commitment, not a pose to cover up racist bigotry. Some nationalists do believe that their country is better than all others, and some nationalisms are plainly illiberal and overtly racist. But as many defenders of patriotism have pointed out, you love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others.”
“A liberal nationalist can reasonably argue that the debate over immigration policy in Europe is not a case of what is moral versus what is base, but a case of two clashing moral visions, incommensurate (à la Isaiah Berlin). The trick, from this point of view, is figuring out how to balance reasonable concerns about the integrity of one’s own community with the obligation to welcome strangers, particularly strangers in dire need.”
Few people with nationalist or globalist leanings are committed to completely open borders or a total immigration ban so finding this balance is a matter of concern to nearly everyone, and being able to discuss it without being branded a racist by the Left or a traitor to one’s country by the Right is essential.
It was the British and American Left’s biggest failing that rather than acknowledging a high degree of illiberal values in majority-Muslim cultures and formulating a coherent plan to protect their own liberal democracies at the same time as upholding liberal values of behalf of desperately needy refugees, they chose to avoid associating even violent Islamism with Islam. A leader who does not acknowledge an external threat even to put it in a perspective that would reassure their group will never be trusted by large parts of it. Studies show that immigration concerns were a primary factor for Brexit and the reason that the ‘Muslim ban’ remains the most popular policy of Donald Trump’s.
Haidt draws on the work of Karen Stenner to describe an ‘authoritarian alarm’ being pushed right now. Stenner found a “psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat.”
“It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force.”
In short, they become attracted to dominance leadership. McNamara and Trunbull’s study shows that prestige leadership resists the use of force except in times of war (p.16) whilst in dominance leadership, this is a consistent feature.
It would clearly be unfair and factually wrong to claim that all Brexiters and Trump supporters wanted to kick out foreigners and non-conformists using force. This is a far-right fringe position, and most people who were motivated by immigration concerns sought reasonable limitations rather than bans. Other factors, particularly economic, motivated many. It would also be inaccurate to conflate ‘conservatives’ with ‘authoritarians.’ Authoritarianism exists on the far-reaches of both the Right and the Left, and fear of a Left-wing and European authoritarianism has also frequently been cited as motivations for Trump voters and Brexiters. Haidt argues that:
“Status quo conservatives are not natural allies of authoritarians, who often favor radical change and are willing to take big risks to implement untested policies. This is why so many Republicans—and nearly all conservative intellectuals—oppose Donald Trump; he is simply not a conservative by the test of temperament or values. But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling “Stop!””
This argument is supported by a study done by Oded Galor and Marc Klemp which found a strong correlation between diversity and autocracy in pre-colonial societies. Ross Douthat summarises,
“The authors suggest that authoritarianism emerges from both bottom-up and top-down pressures: A diverse society seeks strong central institutions for the sake of cohesion and productivity, and internal division, stratification and mistrust increase “the scope for domination” by powerful elites.”
‘One of the hard truths of human affairs,’ argues Douthat ‘is that diversity and democracy do not go easily together.’
And yet an authoritarian leadership is not inevitable should a strong prestige leader be available – one whose integrity and honesty can reassure and calm rising fears whilst also addressing very real concerns.
“Such a disinterested ruler — a good emperor, let’s call him — would see a crucial part of his role as reassurance, recognizing that in a diverse, fragmented and distrustful landscape, any governing coalition is going to look dangerous to those who aren’t included in it. If he comes from a historically dominant group and speaks on their behalf, he needs to go out of his way to address the anxieties of minorities and newcomers. If he’s building a coalition of minority groups, he needs to reassure the former majority that the country of the future still has a place for them. Whatever the basis of his power, he needs to be constantly attuned to the ways that diversity, difference and distrust can make political conflict seem far more existential than it should.”
This is not Donald Trump, but, sadly, insufficient numbers of Americans felt it was it Hillary Clinton either. Trump, a man distrusted by nearly all the Left and a large proportion of the Right, won partly due to his appearance of plain speaking, particularly on immigration and his presentation of dominance leadership. (We all marvelled at the handshake.) Jeremy Corbyn too was unable to fulfil the role of balanced, honest, tough but ethical protector, and the British Left is in a state of collapse leaving it in no position to offer any challenge to the Conservative party.
This, I would argue, is a large part of the reason why we are so alert to inconsistency, double-standards and hypocrisy right now, and why the Left is particularly vulnerable to it. The internal problem of a shift to culturally relative ethics on the part of a dominant branch of the Left has encountered the external issue of the refugee crisis and accompanying sense of existential threat. The need for an honest and consistent response which balanced the needs of refugees in desperate circumstances with the need to maintain the cultural integrity of a liberal democracy could not be met by a culturally relative Left with a tendency to prioritise the needs of minority groups and brand all concerns about illiberal values ‘racist.’ This does not sit well with the sense of fairness common to traditional conservatives or traditional liberals and resulted in an ‘authoritarian alarm’ which increased the attractiveness of dominance leadership in the form of populist, nationalist and even far-right groups. Having spilt our milk in the form of Brexit and a Trump presidency, those who voted for them feel the need to validate these decisions and this continues to motivate them to draw attention to the ‘hypocrisy’ of the Left. For many who voted against them, the need to fix the Left and produce a workable opposition to far-right nationalism and win back centrists and former leftists, the same motivation exists.
Hypocrisy, inconsistency and double-standards are not the cause of the current political polarisation, unfortunate voting decisions and general instability. However, the focus on them now does reflect a general distrust heightened by a sense, no matter how realistic, of external threat. The fact that there has been a shift towards the Right reveals an increasing tendency to place the limited trust available in the Right over the Left and this is not something we should rationalise away as a sudden increase in racism, sexism, xenophobia or callousness to our fellow human beings. This is a time to be rebuilding a prestige leadership, regaining some trust, addressing legitimate concerns about immigration, cultural integrity and economic fairness honestly and without accusations of bigotry.
Jonathan Haidt speaking of the concept of the authoritarian alarm says,
“If this argument is correct, then it leads to a clear set of policy prescriptions for globalists. First and foremost: Think carefully about the way your country handles immigration and try to manage it in a way that is less likely to provoke an authoritarian reaction.”
Even if one is not a globalist but one of many people who fit neatly into neither ‘globalist’ nor ‘nationalist’ but seek regulated immigration and consistently liberal ethics more broadly, Haidt’s recommendation for ‘some deep rethinking about the value of national identities and cohesive moral communities’ is good. There is simply no requirement to devalue one’s own culture or any identity even if one feels very positively about globalism, multi-culturalism, gender, racial and LGBT equality. Neither a conservative nor traditionally liberal sense of fairness will tolerate this and it can only serve to alienate the majority of people and strengthen an illiberal form of nationalism. A prestige leader; Douthat’s ‘good emperor’ will need to balance the needs of immigrant minorities and national minorities with those of national majorities and attempt to make all feel their government has their best interests at heart. The Left can only regain cultural dominance by providing a strong, honest and consistently liberal prestige leader whose aims for equality resonate with widely held moral intuitions about fairness. Until it does this, the hyper-sensitivity to double standards and ‘hypocrisy’ aimed at the Left and the popularity of an illiberal nationalist Right leadership will continue.
Helen is a humanist, secularist and universal liberal. Her academic writing focuses on late medieval & early modern religious writing by and for women.