Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Hypocrisy Arguments are Bad

with 4 comments

Hypocrisy arguments are bad and you should stop making them. I want to distinguish here between an hypocrisy argument–one where hypocrisy is pointed out to delegitimate a  person or position without more–and a hypocrisy claim. By a hypocrisy claim, I mean an accusation of hypocrisy embedded within a larger argument. My argument here applies to the former, not the latter.

Hypocrisy arguments are overrated. In life, in general, and in politics in particular, consistency is the exception not the rule. I am in favor of striving for consistency, but skeptical of anyone who claims their own group is uniformly consistent while their opponents are not. If hypocrisy were rare, it might pack more of a punch. But it is not and it doesn’t. I’m unconvinced they have ever convinced anyone of anything. 

Hypocrisy arguments are especially weak when it comes to challenging racism, which is an entire system of treating people differently. It would be like trying to challenge feudalism by pointing out the serfs are treated differently than the lord. Of course they are! All systems of oppression involve double standards, usually while also denying that they are double standards. To the racist, treating people differently on the basis of race is appropriate. To the person who has implicit bias, those double standards are natural. Challenging such systems no doubt requires making hypocrisy claims, but it also requires arguments about why such double standards are wrong.

Hypocrisy arguments are vague. When we simply point to differences in punitiveness, say between black and white perpetrators, are we calling for more punishment or less? (The right often has a handy response, which is let’s increase punishments. They won’t necessarily do it, but it’s an effective response.) This means they don’t advance your larger political goals, which remain unstated.

More generally, hypocrisy arguments mostly fail to make clear if you are calling for equalizing the better side or the worse one.  You might think you are just pointing out hypocrisy but you are likely still be reinforcing a regressive frame. As a result, hypocrisy arguments often lead people to act like conservative goals are a good thing (like austerity to address budget deficits, or harsher criminal justice punishments).

As a result, a fun thing about hypocrisy arguments is that you can use them to attack someone who is actually right, without having to defend your incorrect position. They also allow you to attack a position you yourself hold, while pretending otherwise. (This is particularly helpful to politicians).

Hypocrisy arguments target the wrong thing.  The problem with bad positions is that they are bad, not that they are applied inconsistently. I’m not thrilled with Drug War hypocrisy but the real problem is support for the Drug War. If you attack someone for inconsistency, they can parry you by becoming consistent in the wrong directions. Aside from that, those who are consistently bad can easily avoid censure from hypocrisy arguments.

The other way they target the wrong thing is by misrepresenting your opponent’s position. Few people are actually against violence. More often they condemn violence by the oppressed while calling for it or even engaging in it against the oppressed. That is because they are supporting the status quo of oppression. Painting this as ‘hypocrisy’ misses most of what is actually going on.

Or take the hot take that Obama spent less than any president since Eisenhower. It’s actually false to say that conservatives are against government spending. They may say that, but that’s because they don’t mean all government when they say government. They are against spending on the poor aside from punishment. They generally like spending on the military, police and prisons. It misses something important to say this is just about more or less “spending.”

Hypocrisy arguments won’t build power. They allow you to criticize without taking a moral stance. But successful movements on the right and the left have drawn on moral claims. People are rarely moved to action by consistency, or lack of it. They might let you win a single argument, but they won’t help you win politically. Certainly the latter should be the main goal.

[Update: Adam Kotsko has a good post on this issue that you should definitely check out: The bankruptcy of hypocrisy critiques]

Written by David Kaib

September 15, 2016 at 11:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

4 Responses

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  1. Good point. I’ve had similar thoughts. People fond of charging others with hypocrisy are usually the biggest hypocrites.

    October 24, 2016 at 4:42 pm

  2. Counter-argument: In a world of subjective criteria, criticizing someone for being a hypocrite is the only kind of argument that sticks. Compare:

    A: Your argument doesn’t accomplish [X]
    B: I don’t care about [X] so this doesn’t bother me.


    A: You claim to want [X] but in case [Y] you don’t.
    B: [has to explain why X is sometimes good and sometimes bad in a way that weakens position on X]

    You say “If you attack someone for inconsistency, they can parry you by becoming consistent in the wrong directions.” This is built on the illusion that if you just keep hammering someone for having views you don’t like, eventually they WILL acquiesce to your specific viewpoints, which is so obviously not true that I’m curious why you brought it up.

    I mean, this seems to be your only real point: if you call people on inconsistency, they might change for the better, or they might change for the worse, or they might ignore you. But if the latter two cases are so unacceptable to you that “calling out hypocrisy” is worthless, then you really can’t engage in politics at all. Trying to call someone “bad” directly leads to the same shit – they either recognize it, or they stubbornly double down, or they ignore you. How is this different?


    October 25, 2016 at 9:47 am

    • “You say ‘If you attack someone for inconsistency, they can parry you by becoming consistent in the wrong directions.’ This is built on the illusion that if you just keep hammering someone for having views you don’t like, eventually they WILL acquiesce to your specific viewpoints, which is so obviously not true that I’m curious why you brought it up.”

      You missed the word “can,” which is pretty important to the meaning of the sentence. It means I am clearly not saying anything WILL happen, only that your opponent here has an easy counter–to take a more consistently conservative position when charged with hypocrisy, which hardly is useful.

      I’m not sure what separates my only real points from my other unreal (?) points, but I think the key point here is that winning an argument is not how one wins at politics. Reading me through that lens will only lead to confusion. See for example, the final point, “Hypocrisy arguments won’t build power.”

      David Kaib

      November 8, 2016 at 9:39 am

  3. I find it so hard to internalize this. I know it’s true, but when I see eg Republicans blasting Democrats for filibustering Gorsuch or liberals’ hypocritical treatment of Sanders I just get steam coming out of my ears.It’s a struggle.


    April 25, 2017 at 12:55 am

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