Few social types on campus are as universally maligned as the lefty activist who graduates into finance or consulting. After teasing friends who work at hedge funds, they head to Bain. They donate to Warren or Bernie while collecting six-figure paychecks. Capitalists and their opponents alike offer their disdain. At least those who join the Yale Undergraduate Consulting Group, you might say, are honest about what they’re doing.
But once we move past the initial intuition that these are two distinct groups of actors, those who pretend that they’re better than they actually are and those who own who they are, we discover that their projects are more or less the same. The hypocrisy changes nothing about the content of their actions.
Judith Shklar explores the phenomenon of our visceral distaste for hypocrisy in her 1984 book “Ordinary Vices.” Her contemporaries, she argues, evaluated hypocrisy as the worst among the vices. There was nothing less forgivable than self-contradiction. Be snobs or traitors or consultants, but let us not be hypocrites.
The charge of hypocrisy found its power in the decline of shared moral standards — in pluralistic societies, the lack of common rules of conduct denies a universal rubric for moral worth. Without the shared sensibilities of Puritanism, for instance, one cannot censure others using the morals of the community. One can only point to differences between what others say and what they do. Republicans hate abortion until their mistresses get pregnant. You may be a feminist, but I’ve never heard a more creative use of the c-word. To the earnest believer, to the sincere, these barbs still smart.
What is dizzying, vertiginous, about college in particular, is that our ideal selves change from room to room. We are our seminar personas and our pregame personas and the personas that are too unbothered to take calls from our parents. In the small world of this campus, where all are separated by fewer than two degrees, our friends’ hypocrisies seem to consist of more than just actions contradicting words. What they say contradicts what they say, and what they do contradicts what they do. We complain about the YDN on one social media platform and post our articles on another.
Maybe we accept enough ambiguity to see each person as just the multiple hats that they wear and nothing more. Perhaps we imagine that we are here to explore different ways of life, whether those of consulting groups or labor organizers. But where does that leave us? With a multitude of intractable positions and nowhere to go. The subject is dead; there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. We are all flawed and living in a fallen world.
And yet, even amongst us sophisticates who can see the ambiguity, suspicions of hypocrisy always return. We advocate for criminal justice and prison abolition while rushing to judgment amidst the rancor of cancel culture. We advance austere defenses of tradition with gleeful indifference to settled precedents. We expect friends to express themselves with total sincerity in every context.
All around us there seem to be clear cases of hypocrisy. Liz and Bernie are just as hypocritical as their tormented McKinsey donors, aren’t they? Millionaires scolding millionaires for their corrosive influence on politics, taking their money and running for office all the while. In this case, claims of hypocrisy do not seem so much convenient as necessary. Their candidacies criticize themselves.
These accusations against Warren and Sanders are popular and intuitive, their underlying facts impossible to deny. But they are unmistakably ineffective in actually undermining the candidates. I would be shocked to learn of anybody who was dissuaded from voting for Bernie Sanders upon discovering his net worth of $2.5 million. For all the clamor around these incidents of hypocrisy, they do nothing to advance our politics or enrich political discourse.
Claims of hypocrisy distract us from the intricacies of our choices. When it is unimaginable to support a hypocritical position, we foreclose nuance. Having found hypocrisy, we suppose we’ve won. We retreat into the satisfaction of our relative sincerity, that we are at the very least not hypocrites. In such moments, we like to think that we are the consistent ones. Ultimately, the only way to challenge this self-satisfaction is when others identify our own hypocrisies.
Instead of following the politics of consistency in its stubborn loops, I suggest we ask more of our judgement. Rather than casting someone’s actions against a background of that person’s stated values, we ought to consider those actions in the context of their consequences and alternatives.
When others seem to tolerate hypocrites or wear clashing hats, we should ask ourselves why that is our concern: are we so much better? Should those hypocrites have done any differently?
Asking these questions is hard work. It involves pushing past that first, reductive impulse to call each other out and thinking more critically about why people do what they do.
If you emerge from this process with your convictions reinforced, that is much more productive than pointing out a hypocrisy ever would be.
To join a frat while admitting the existence of toxic masculinity is no more odious than doing so while denying it. Sometimes, calling out hypocrisy short-circuits a much better and longer conversation. Accusations of hypocrisy are no substitute for critique, just as sincere choices cannot replace good ones. Be snobs or traitors or hypocrites, but let us not be thoughtless.
ARUN SHARMA is a senior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .