Just when you thought the whole damned controversy was in your rear-view mirror, along comes some damned blogger to put all the ick right back on the table. Well suck it up, dear reader, cause I got a bloggitation to bloggitize over this.
We all know the story, right? A little while back, the comedian, Kathy Griffin, posted a picture of herself holding up the severed head of Donald Trump. Don’t worry, it was fake. Donald survived the whole ordeal, but suffice to say, it was a rather controversial image. Naturally, a great deal of outrage was soon to follow. I have no doubt that a good number of those complaining about her stunt were simply using it as grist for the mill. I also have no doubt that a number of her critics were genuinely appalled by Griffin’s stunt. Which critics fit into which category is another question, and not a very interesting one at that.
What I find especially interesting about this story is the role hypocrisy as a theme in this particular kerfuffle. It’s hardly surprising to see that theme pop up here. Really, it’s just the sort of story that begs for accusations of hypocrisy, and those accusations soon made an appearance. Various parties on the right wing accused ‘lefties’ or ‘liberals’ of hypocrisy for making such a big deal of violence and violent rhetoric on the part of the Trump campaign when we produce violent rhetoric such as that of Griffin. Those of us on the left (myself among them) complained that the right makes hay out of Griffin’s image while condoning the actual violence of people like Montana’s Greg Gianforte or for that matter supporting Donald Trump’s flirtations with mob violence. Of course each side is fully capable of responding to accusations of support for violence (whether tacit or overt) by pointing at still more support for violence on the other side.
…and the internet becomes an angry infinity mirror.
So, what’s interesting about that? It’s the role that accusations of hypocrisy can play in facilitating, …well, hypocrisy. Think of it this way: You see somebody do something outrageous (and by outrageous, I mean something likely to rouse disapproval in the public sphere), and you want to criticize them for it. The problem is, you’ve done something like that yourself in the past, or at least you’ve supported other people who did. This creates a problem in that your own condemnation is likely to come across as an inconsistency. One potential solution to that is to conjure the image of critics who have condemned this behavior before and castigate them for supporting the behavior now. That way, you don’t have to actually put your own cards on the table. You don’t have to actually say that you are now condemning the behavior your once supported. Instead, you just say; “look at the guy who is now supporting behavior he once condemned!” If you do this right, you can effectively play both sides of the game without anyone noticing. All they see is that you are commenting on someone else who is playing both sides of the field. It’s an exercise in projection of course, and a remarkably effective one at that. It’s what I like to call the meta-hypocrisy shuffle.
I should add that it isn’t really necessary to point out any actual instances of hypocrisy on the part of any particular person to make this stratagem work. It is often enough to talk about ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ (or any other group) and simply tell the story of how the other side is full of hypocrites. The ploy can be just as effective in this abstract form as it can be with real life examples. Plus, it avoids the inconvenience of having to address the details of anyone’s actual behavior, much less to deal with their own response to your criticism.
So, what am I saying here? I am saying that a lot of people on the right used Kathy Griffin to field an argument about liberal hypocrisy all the while hiding their own hypocrisy on the very same subject. That’s the argument I want to make anyway, but reflexivity being what it is, I must also concede that a lot of liberals did the same. What I don’t have to concede is that all parties involved in the controversy are equally guilty of this vice. Quite a few people on the left really did condemn Griffin’s behavior, and I certainly have known a number of Republicans who have condemned Donald Trump’s more violent rhetoric. (I’d say that’s one of the differences between a ‘conservative’ and a ‘deplorable’.) Griffin did in the end, lose at least one gig (actually several, it seems) over the whole matter. I could only wish the same was true of Donald Trump. Be that as it may, the point is that this trick (and the criticism I make of it) can indeed cut both ways, but that possibility does not mean the cut is equally warranted.
I don’t know how productive a debate would be over which political groups are more consistent on this (or any other) issue, but I do think some individuals at least have managed to show some consistency on the issue. Sadly, they are often tarred with the same hypocritical brush as their flip-flopping allies have been. Again, the story of hypocrisy alone is often sufficient to make the argument stick, sufficient even to the degree that those who are rigorously consistent on an issue may well be accused of hypocrisy by someone who is himself or herself simply doing the meta-hypocrisy shuffle.
It’s worth bearing in mind here that there is at least one angle on such issues that the whole question of hypocrisy doesn’t seem to address, and by this I mean the integrity of a committed partisan. You could take a relentless commitment to one side of a debate as a kind of integrity in itself. You could see the willingness to field arguments in direct contradiction to one’s own personal record as an instance of taking one for the team. Perhaps it is even a kind of courage. If so, that’s a courage I hope never to have, but so be it, the ethic is out there. Some clearly ascribe to it. Most of us, I think, prefer to field arguments that we find personally plausible, and most of us at least try to accomplish some level of consistency in our moral judgements.
Some try harder than others.
One thing worth considering here is the medium that delivers this message. In person, I suspect we are more likely to forgive each other’s inconsistencies, if for no other reason than because we are likely to see them coming from people whose shifting patterns parallel our own. If I contradict myself in the process of complaining verbally about some damned Republican, odds are rather likely that I am talking to somebody who is just as pissed about that damned Republican as I am. Confirmation bias being what it is, they are just as likely to grab the nearest rhetorical hammer, and just as likely to think it oughtta be used to smash him as I am. Likewise, a Republican jabbering on about a liberal is likely to be doing so in the company of other Republicans who also think rathe rpoorly of the bastard. It could be, that I’m missing something here, but I tend to think verbal exchanges make it a bit easier to skate by on this issue, to shift around one’s values without anyone noticing, and more particularly to avoid becoming the target of someone who seeks to hide his own inconsistencies in a story about ours.
Not so, the net.
All sorts of different people read controversial statements on social media, and that includes the guy who likes to complain about your kinda people even as you’re trying to vent spleen about his kind. In some places, like Facebook, I think, folks may make an effort to set aside their grievances and remember that the guy who just posted the outrageous meme will be sitting across from them at Christmas dinner. In other places, like Twitter, each and every comment expressing a different point of view seems to be fair game. What’s worse, the 140 character limit on tweets thins out the context of any statement a great deal, so it’s tough to tell how people generally approach these things. If someone criticizes Kathy Griffin (or doesn’t) only those who follow him carefully will notice whether or not that criticism squares with his general approach to the issues. The temptation is of course to assume the worst, not for the least of reasons being that the worst often seems to be driving the public debate on such media platforms. So, if a given Twitter-Republican really is just as hard on right wingers who make use of violent rhetoric, few of his more liberal readers will ever know. Likewise, a Twitter-Democrat who doesn’t support images like those produced by Kathy Griffin is as easily accused of liberal hypocrisy as any of those who simply laughed and retweeted her without the slightest thought about the matter.
The way Twitter (among others) thins out the context of political rhetoric facilitates a degree of hypocrisy. That same thinness also makes it easier to substitute general stories about this side or that side of a given debate for genuine comments on actual behavior, stories which fill in the details of people’s political orientation without checking those details against their personal history. This I think, makes the meta-hypocrisy shuffle just a little bit easier. You can always pretend the other side flipped first.
…and that makes it a little easier to flip yourself.