May 16th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

When Is Hypocrisy Not Considered Hypocrisy?

So, I'm still talking about hypocrisy. I mentioned a couple of days ago the conservative commentator, I forget which, who snarked that liberals love to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy, because it's the one charge that can never be leveled at a liberal, since liberals have no standards. Most liberals look at that statement with blank incomprehension. It is painfully obvious to them that the conservatives, not the liberals, are the ones who are totally driven by self-interest and selfishness, bordering on sociopathy. To them it's perfectly obvious that it's the conservatives who have no real values. Well, at least, that they have no values that they actually live by. Ambrose Bierce famously defined a Christian as, "One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin."

Liberals want to know where a gambling addict like William Bennett gets off lecturing anybody about values, or an opiate addict like Rush Limbaugh, or someone like Newt Gingrich who served divorce papers on his second wife while she was in the hospital with cancer so he could marry a woman he'd cheated on her with. Or to bring up the latest outrage, liberals want to know how much gall it takes for the Bush administration to appoint to the FDA as an expert on women's health someone who turned his own wife into a prostitute, before drugging her into submission so he could anally rape her, and who now lectures the country about other people's sexual immorality and in the case of emergency contraception, manages to get his preaching about other people's sex lives made a matter of law, no matter which laws he might have broken.

Conservatives, especially social conservatives,don't see the contradiction here. Shall I explain that? The answer is simple. To a Hager, or a Limbaugh, or a Gingrich, or a Bennett, what makes them not hypocrites, what makes them moral individuals, is specifically that they don't live up to their own standards -- and admit it. That is to say, what makes them fit moral judges of the rest of us is that they are willing to condemn even the sins that they themselves enjoy. To them, a lifestyle liberal is someone who has lowered the bar so far that their own sins are no longer considered sinful. It really angers a social conservative that because they stand up for absolute standards of right and wrong, even when it makes them feel bad about their own behavior, and because the lifestyle liberals all have excuses for why their "obviously" sinful behavior is perfectly OK, it's the conservatives who get judged, not the liberals. Hence the complaint about "hypocrisy." They're not interested in throwing around charges of hypocrisy. They're more interested in hearing what deviant behavior you, unlike them, are willing to condone.

And here's one of the things that motivates that feeling. There is a disconnect in the way two different kinds of people talk about morals and ethics and standards. On some level, this isn't a conservative versus liberal thing, or even a Christian versus Pagan or religious versus irreligious thing. No, it's about expectations, and it's about language.

There are people who just plain assume that no matter how high or low you set your moral standards, you will occasionally fall short of them. The most famous textual example of this is in Paul of Tarsus's famous letter to the original Christian church at Rome, in Romans 7:15-25, where the Apostle complains that he knows what God's law is, and wants to obey it, but, "what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do -- this I keep on doing." So if even the Apostle Paul, with the direct divine intervention of the risen Jesus Christ acting in his life and speaking through him, couldn't keep himself from failing to live up to his own standards, what makes you think you're going to live up to yours? No, to someone who thinks like this, if your moral standards are lower than theirs, that is to say if you've set them to values that an actual human being might actually live by, then when you fail (and it is obvious to them that you will fail, because they believe that everybody does), you'll do even more debased things than they do. And if there's no proof of that yet, it just means that you haven't been caught -- probably because you haven't been subjected to the relentless investigation, examination, and outright spying that the advocates of sinful life use to silence and crush those who stand up for higher values, since you're probably no threat to them.

What they can't imagine is that some other people, like me, were raised by a different rule altogether. To my late father, there was one supreme rule that was the final judge of character. You could do everything else right in your life, but if you did this one thing wrong, you were an evil person. Any other sin could be repented, any other crime could be atoned for, but as Jim Hicks told me over and over again growing up, "If a man's word is no good, he's no good." To such a man as he, or I, a set of moral values are a promise we make to the world. No excuse will be offered, or accepted, for breaking such a promise. No, when I tell you what my moral values are, you can pretty well count on my keeping them. That's why they may seem low to you, if you're a social conservative: it's because unlike you, I'm living without a safety net. I will not fall, I do not dare to fall, because if I do, I will fall harder. I won't use the excuse of saying that I'm a good person because I stand up for good. If I don't live up to my word, if I don't live up to the values I espouse, then you can hit me for it as hard as you want, because it means that I'm no good.

At the risk of seeing some of you bog down in the details of an example instead of the general principle, as keeps happening to me, I got a vivid example of this a couple of weeks ago. I was talking to a friend about whether or not some people were naturally monogamous, and whether or not some people were naturally polygamous, and whether or not people who were naturally one way or the other could choose to live otherwise and live up to it. But that's not what this set of journal entries is about. The part of that conversation that relates to this is the part where I said obviously most people are monogamous, and live monogamous lives. He, the monogamist in the conversation, outright contradicted me, and said that I was flat out wrong, that obviously only a relatively tiny percentage of people are monogamous. When I stopped laughing, I saw that he was quite serious.

After some back and forth, I saw what he meant. I was talking about values, about self-identity, about the kind of life that people want to live for themselves. He was talking about actual behavior. What's more, he was doing so in the most strict and judgmental way. If you cheat on your spouse, if you're capable of cheating on your spouse, it means that you're not monogamous. A truly monogamous person, as he sees it, is someone who never strays, because a truly monogamous person is someone who would never want to stray. What I found myself in the awkward position of trying to explain to him (and boy, coming from me, did this feel weird) was that some people really do want to be monogamous. They don't just want other people, or even just their spouse, to be monogamous, they really do want to be monogamous. And yet they find themselves having sex with someone other than their spouse; sometimes, to make it worse, it's somebody else's spouse. But they'd tell you, with a straight face that comes from being convinced themselves, that they didn't want to. That is to say, the real them didn't want to cheat on their spouse. It was just something that happened in a moment of weakness.

And if you don't uphold the same narrow, strict, unlivable, Puritanical moral standards that they do, they can't help but wonder just how far down you fall when nobody is looking. And in the unlikely event that you could convince them that no, you really do live up to your own standards, they're still profoundly unhappy. Because they know that someone out there is listening to you, or likes you, or admires you. They're setting their standards by your standards -- but unlike what you claim for yourself, they won't live up to them. And so whatever depraved thing they do when they have a moment of weakness is your fault.