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What do you do when someone on your side says or does something so utterly beyond the pale that it is completely indefensible?

Those Americans calling themselves ‘conservatives’ got a chance to show us their response to this sort of dilemma back when Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, actively misrepresenting her unofficial testimony and insulting her on his radio show. He would later retract the insults while leaving his lies about Fluke’s actual testimony uncorrected. His lies continue to circulate through the population, effectively replacing a responsible debate about the wisdom of mandatory birth control coverage and reasonable accommodations for religious objection with a fantasy battle over personal sex lives and government subsidies. The end result would seem indefensible, even outright embarrassing for anyone implicated in supporting Limbaugh.

One would think the responsible thing to do would be to say not just ‘no’, but ‘Hell no’, and refuse to back Limbaugh’s approach to the subject. One might even suggest that such an approach would help to distinguish the conservatives from the many playground bullies currently reveling in the delusion that their sundry bits of prejudice add up to some sort of political philosophy.

Suffice to say this was not the most common Republican response to the situation. The right wing echo chamber cried foul over liberal backlash against Limbaugh and quickly spun the story into a case-study in liberal hypocrisy. Liberals condemn Limbaugh, so the argument goes, but then look at Bill Maher and his comments about Sarah Palin! (I recall a few other examples, but Maher clearly occupied center stage in the right wing response to this issue.) And thus Limbaugh’s disgusting personal attacks on a young student activist became proof of liberal misogyny?

How many of the right wing pundits jumping on the “what about___” response ever bothered to make a principled criticism of Limbaugh, one that went beyond merely disclaiming the insults to call him to account for his misrepresentations of her testimony? I wouldn’t say that the answer is ‘none’, but it certainly falls well short of the total commenting on the issue. Most of these ‘conservatives’ have simply been content to comment on liberal hypocrisy without making any serious effort to correct those in their own camp.

The focus on liberal hypocrisy enables conservatives to defend Limbaugh and complain about Maher without ever laying their own cards on the table. So long as the focus of thought rests on whether or not liberals have been consistent on the issue, right wing pundits never have to take responsibility for addressing the issues squarely themselves. And they can effectively work both angles of the debate just as they accuse liberals of doing, all the while laying responsibility for the inconsistencies of the entire national discourse squarely at the feet of those damned liberals.

And thus the charge of hypocrisy facilitates the same.

We could call this particular gambit the META-HYPOCRISY SHUFFLE. It consists of disguising your own inconsistencies by pretending you are just responding to those of someone else. There is nothing particularly new about this tactic, nor is it exclusive to conservatives. And of course the plot thickens when calling attention to this problem as well, because one can always add another layer to the house of cards by refusing to take a stand on the particulars while complaining about the inconsistency of the other guy.

…and on into infinity.

The problem is easy enough to identify. Untangling it is another matter, not the least of reasons being that the perception of hypocrisy is easy to manipulate in a variety of ways.

If you are not sure whether or not any particular individual is guilty of hypocrisy, you can always use the tactic of INCONSISTENCY BY ASSOCIATION. This consists of treating all of those who belong to a given group as though they are collectively responsible for producing a single ideologically consistent position. Thus, if I can find one self-described conservative who says that it is wrong to degrade women, quote him, then go find another self-described conservative who does just that, well then voila! I have proven conservatives inconsistent.

…unless I haven’t.

To make the charge honestly, I need one person who does both things, not two or more people who simply share the label.

And of course there is always the possibility of GAMING THE PRINCIPLE. This is really just another variety of the straw man fallacy. The tactic exploits a common weakness that typically accompanies expressions of outrage. When people are really angry over something, they often fail to state the principles they feel have been violated with any degree of precision, …or even at all. This makes it easy for others to come along and rewrite the principle in question for them. Even if the outraged individual has spelled out the specific principles they feel have been violated, a loose paraphrase can often lead readers to forget that inconvenient detail.

Someone who feels that Sandra Fluke did not personally deserve Limbaugh’s personal attacks, for example, could easily be construed as claiming that one ought never to insult a political opponent (thus confusing a claim about the particular case at hand with a claim about a more general ethical principle). Those who objected to Limbaugh’s lies might be taken to be object to his insults, or visa versa, etc., thus creating a nice little shell game in which the issue changes handily. The point here is to supply a principle to one’s critic that puts him on the worst footing possible, even if that principle has little to do with their actual concerns. From there it is a simple task to demonstrate the individual in question has violated the principle they never actually endorsed, and that’s Q.E.frickin-D.

Except that it isn’t.

To make the charge honestly one must be sure that a person has violated a principle she herself has actually advocated, not one that sounds close enough.

And finally there is the very simple tactic of SKIPPING THE FACTS. Just because accusations and insults may be leveled in all directions does not mean that all of them have equal value. Sometimes party A really has done something wrong and party B hasn’t. It’s easy enough to flip the tables of accusation and say; “see how you like it?”…but if the claims don’t have equal merit, then this gambit is hollow as hell.

All of these tactics help to transform the sort of inconsistency that shows up under the scrutiny of critical thinking into one that will show up in a political narrative whether or not it is warranted on the facts at hand. These tactics did not emerge with the Limbaugh-Fluke controversy, nor will they be filed away in the wake of that dust-up. They are constant presence in the political landscape, and the right wing of this country is making very effective use of them.

In the long run, the problem here is not that questions about liberal behavior have been put on the table; it’s that putting those questions on the table has become a very effective way to get questions about right wing behavior off the table.