LogicWarrior Demand Reason

12Nov/090

Hypocrisy

There is an annoying and frustrating space between rhetoric and argument that consists of arguments that cause rage but are still valid.  Legalistic arguments often fit into this space of things that trigger some basal part of the brain as being wrong but fit within the strictures of rigorous logic.  When invoking pathos, one’s right response would be “fuck a couch” but this is neither permitted under current social norms nor under the rules of traditional debate formats.

Within this space also lies another phenomenon that turns housewives into knife-wielding maniacs and children into firebrand iconoclasts: hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is formally defined by American Heritage as “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness”.  I think a more from-the-gut definition would be “the space between what one says and what one does”.  At first blush, hypocrisy seems like something that could reasonably derail an argument but this is not always the case.

Acceptable Hypocrisies

The Voice of Experience: My dad wanted my brother and I to finish high school and got mad if we skipped school.  He dropped out of high school and entered the Navy when he was 17.  Is this hypocrisy? Yes.  Do I have a problem with it? No.  Acceptable hypocrisy often plays the role of the voice of experience of someone having made a mistake or seen the consequences of an action and attempting to steer other away from the mistake.  Simply because it’s acceptable in this case doesn’t mean it is always so as the person waging the hypocrisy must have some way of showing the negative outcome.  If my father were unable to come up with a good reason for me to finish high school or simply said “listen to me, I’m your father” this would simply be an argument from authority.

Job Duties:  There are often differences between what one as a person considers appropriate and what one is called to do as part of their job.  Consider the elementary school teacher that smokes marijuana but whose charged with delivering anti-drug information to children.  If he or she is delivering the information in good faith then the hypocrisy can again be acceptable as he or she is merely performing the functions of her job.  The appropriateness of this example depends on to what extent one considers a teach a role-model and how strongly one excludes what’s done in private.

Maximizing Value: Al Gore is often panned for generating CO2 via jet travel while spreading his message of anthropogenic climate change.  While this may seem hypocritical, I think it largely represents a failure to consider trade-offs.  If a presentation effectively reduces CO2 production from the audience my more that what is generated by the trip there’s been a net savings.  One could reasonably say that he could do more but a simple attack of “you use planes while telling people to reduce greenhouse gas production” seems simplistic.

Logical Rigor: The final and most annoying case of hypocrisy is when it occurs in an environment of logical rigor.  An SUV sporting a “Support Solar Power” bumper sticker suggests cognitive dissonance in the driver but the apparent contradiction does not invalidate the statement.  One could accost the driver for this inconsistency but to attack the argument would be an ad hominem attack.

Unacceptable Hypocrisy

Arguments from Authority: Arguments of the form “You wish to emulate me, I do this activity, thus you should too” are easily countered by examples of hypocrisy.  Celebrity endorsements for products not used or the holier-than-thou politician being unwoven by scandal fit this category.

Using Hypocrisy to Your Advantage

Often, arguments come from emotion more so than from rigor and in these cases pointing out hypocrisy can be devastating.  A common form of hypocrisy is the Tu quoque (literally “you too”) where the speaker commits the action he or she is opposing.  This is different from the argument from authority as it attacks authenticity.  Audiences tend to quickly lose interesting in arguments waged by those who don’t appear to support them thinking “not even the proponent believes it, why should I?”

Provide Context: If one is forced into hypocrisy provide context.  A chronic smoker addressing kids could say “kids, smoking is bad for you” or the much more persuasive and tell “I recognize that smoking is harmful and every morning I wake up coughing I wish I had never started.  Kids, don’t smoke.”

Point Out Differences: If one is called out for committing a wrong that one is accusing another of having done as well, note why that person’s case is different.  “I know there are cases as a library volunteer where I’ve not fulfilled all my promises but we’re considering a person for a board position.”

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