Hypocrisy & Speech

I think this is true, as far as it goes, but is also an inclination to be resisted (albeit not dismissed)

But as Stanley Fish pointed out decades ago, during the first round of political-correctness culture wars (ca. 1985-95), in this sense hypocrisy is simply what human beings do. According to the definition given above, it is virtually impossible to find non-hypocritical judgments. In his famous essay “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too” Fish describes John Milton’s famous celebration of free speech in “Areopagitica,” which commends “the virtues of toleration and unregulated publication in passages that find their way into every discussion of free speech and the First Amendment,” after which “Milton catches himself up short and says, of course I didn’t mean Catholics, them we exterminate.” Here’s the key passage:

I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate . . . that also which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself.

Beneath every commitment to free speech, Fish says, is this unspoken but essential question: “Would this form of speech or advocacy, if permitted to flourish, tend to undermine the very purposes for which our society is constituted?” If the answer is Yes, then that speech is unprotected by our laws.

Though perhaps there is a way to incorporate it into our discussion without it leading to a wholesale dismissal of speech that runs contrary to our societal rationale.

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14 thoughts on “Hypocrisy & Speech

  1. I like this:

    For those of us observing such scenes, the best practice is simply to ignore what any institution says it stands for, and pay attention to its actions. The self-descriptions of institutions are meaningless, because, to borrow terms from William Butler Yeats, they tend to be either rhetorical or sentimental: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbor, the sentimentalist himself.” There is really no point in your calling attention to the hypocrisy of institutions in applying their professed standards. The lack of fit between their words and their deeds is inevitable, and precisely the same is true of the institutions you love and pledge your loyalty to.

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  2. I think there’s something to the idea, but trying to apply it to the decisions that editors of publications make about who to hire and who to fire is… pretty daft.

    Like it’s definitely true that the First Amendment doesn’t cover literally everything, but the exceptions aren’t anything that annoys us or might be inconvenient for government policy, and they’ve generally gotten to be narrower over time. “This freedom is not completely unlimited,” is not the exception, though, but the rule, and almost every freedom has some qualifications.

    We have a different issue here with platforms that have influencing what their customers see as their fundamental rationale and/or business model, whether the influence is exercising editorial judgement or setting up algorithmic systems to drive engagement. Those platforms, in fact, have their own free speech rights, and virtually any decision they make in terms of who to publish, and for that matter what writers to employ is going to be covered under those rights.

    No matter what you think of the decisions, both firing Norton and refusing to fire Jeong are just free speech.

    I agree with that the final paragraph is the one that matters, but part of me wonders why people resist it.

    If, prior to Kevin Williamson being hired and then immediately fired, you has said, “The Atlantic is a magazine that has a place for Ta-Nehisi Coates, but not Kevin Williamson,” I think you would have provoked little controversy or outrage.

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    • If, prior to Kevin Williamson being hired and then immediately fired, you has said, “The Atlantic is a magazine that has a place for Ta-Nehisi Coates, but not Kevin Williamson,” I think you would have provoked little controversy or outrage.

      Because then it would not have been a matter of hypocrisy. The Atlantic would just have been another left of centre version of National Review and that would have be that. Instead it billed itself differently by first hiring Williamson and then violated their own standards.

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      • That’s the problem with the framing. Because even if I said that, I don’t think people would have concluded it was just a left-of-center National Review. It had its share of heterodox center-right voices before Williamson was hired, and as far as a I know they all remained after he was fired.

        People seem to have invented a new standard to hold The Atlantic to beyond just, “Provide a fairly diverse range of ideologies.” Something like, “Don’t bend to outrage from the left over a hiring choice.”

        I’m not even saying the standard is a necessarily bad one. I just think it was mostly projected onto the magazine from the outside.

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  3. The reason why hypocrisy matters goes to the heart of what a public or social/inter-personal morality is about. Social morality is what is invoked when people make moral demands on one another. (And we do make such demands, even libertarians when they demand that others not interfere with their actions) We get to make other people’s actions our business, not because we have any personal authority over them, but because social morality itself has normative authority over them. The normative authority of moral rules is different from the personal authority claims made by people in that whereas personal authority claims purport to apply only to those to whom the claims are addressed, moral rules have authority over both addresser and addressee. This means that it is understood that a feature of any genuine rule of social morality is that it be reversible. The rule applies even when the positions are reversed.

    One of the reasons why society and hence social morality is possible is that we take the claims others address to us to be good faith attempts to spell out a rule of social morality, not the mere exertion of power or social pressure to conform to one’s personal preferences. What this means is that peaceful social relations is underwritten by a trust that we will apply the same rule even when we are are disadvantaged. It is because I a) take you to be a moral agent capable of responding to moral reasons and b) take you to be offering in good faith your best interpretation of what the rules of social morality are that I give some weight to your claim in my deliberations of what I ought to do.

    Hypocrisy involves not following or applying a rule in our own case when we have demanded that others abide by it. When we see someone behave hypocritically, we take that as evidence that they were not offering their best interpretation of the rules of social morality in good faith, but that they were just trying to make others conform to their personal preferences for their own advantage (or for shits and giggles). This in turn gives us reason to discount the rule they proposed in our deliberations*.

    Turning around to modify the rule to make it more “nuanced” so that it allows their apparent violation does not change the fact that the rule as they have hitherto articulated has been violated at least in spirit and at least by a reasonable interpretation of that articulation.

    What normative authority amounts to, roughly speaking, is a kind of oomph. We feel that oomph of a rule of social morality whenever we are prepared to accept that rule unhindered by any particular threat advantage or disadvantage we may happen to have. Therefore, some rule is an eligible rule of social morality only if it would be acceptable to everyone from behind the veil of ignorance. It often is the case that we are willing to accept the simpler/cruder rule from behind the veil of ignorance, but not the more nuanced sophisticated rule because the nuanced rule leaves a loophole you can drive a truck through and behind the veil you do not know if you will end up at the sharp end of said nuanced rule.

    This kind of complicating the rule to give yourself an out seems then to be doubly dishonest. Firstly, it seems like a transparent attempt to cover up a bad faith attempt to hijack the authority of morality for personal or factional gain. Secondly, the more nuanced rule would never have been acceptable to those to whom it was applied if it had been stated transparently, rather, people were disadvantaged and made to accept their being disadvantaged under the cover of the more acceptable rule.

    *I owe Sam Wilkinson an apology over an old argument we had about what hypocrisy says about the moral beliefs about the hypocrite. It turns out that he was more right than I thought he was.

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    • And yet, moral rules which are normally consistently applied often come into direct conflict with each other, and part of the role / use of purported hypocrisy is in deciding which one to apply. (It’s not the best thing to put in that role, IMO, but that’s part of what it’s for.)

      Doing that from behind a veil just… has never seemed possible to me. When I’ve seen people claim to be doing that on any larger than personal scale (ie most of the things we do), to my eyes, they have failed more badly in terms of their actions actually being moral than when they didn’t give themselves the self-justification of socalled impartiality.

      I believe it is far better to sin bravely than to lie to oneself about sinning, given that conflicting moral rules make it almost impossible to never sin. When it comes to conflicting moral rules, the veil of ignorance strikes me as itself hypocritical, as commonly applied.

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      • I believe it is far better to sin bravely than to lie to oneself about sinning, given that conflicting moral rules make it almost impossible to never sin. When it comes to conflicting moral rules, the veil of ignorance strikes me as itself hypocritical, as commonly applied.

        +1000

        You’re always going to be the easiest person to fool, so if you don’t want to spend a lot of time going around with the wool over you eyes, you have to work extremely hard to be honest with yourself.

        And I don’t want to speak for anybody else, but despite my best conscious efforts I still spend a lot of time convincing myself of bullshit. Or maybe I’ve just fooled myself into thinking I’m doing my best.

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  4. People often want to be accepted as they are but demand the right to judge others as strictly, harshly, and fiercely as possible. If you have high status or at least high status in the field your operating in, you can even get away with this.

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    • True, but not the only thing that goes on in these “free speech” Culture War dustups.

      A lot of it is about “tolerance” being an almost inherently double-edged concept. Usually when you ask for tolerance, you’re asking that people tolerate a behavior that you either don’t think is bad at all or pretty mild. When you grant tolerance, you’re usually doing it for behaviors that you think are, well, bad.

      So a lot of the time it’s an issue of people on one side defending or excusing behavior they think is actually defensible or excusable, while getting upset about behavior that they don’t think is excusable. Sometimes there’s a double standard at play, but sometimes it’s an actual ideological commitment underlying the different treatment.

      The language of hypocrisy, tempting as it is, captures none of these dynamics.

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