Scream Hypocrite! When You Can't Win on the Merits

by Thomas M. Sipos

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In an opinion piece for NPR, "The Hypocrisy of Eating at Mexican Restaurants," Monique Truong accuses Trump officials of hypocrisy for (as her title suggests) eating in Mexican restaurants. She writes:

 

"The spectacle of [Stephen] Miller and [Kirstjen] Nielsen sitting down to their upscale Mexican meals was beyond ironic and utterly galling to many Americans who object to "zero tolerance." The policy has resulted in more than 2,300 children being separated from their parents or guardians at the U.S.-Mexico border, many of whom had traveled to the U.S. to seek asylum....

But no matter which restaurant Miller and Nielsen patronize, we should be appalled by the flagrant disconnect between their gustatory desires and the people who make it possible to satisfy those desires. It doesn't matter what the name out front is or what the menu purports to offer, chances are, every restaurant in the D.C. area has a back-of-the-house contingent (kitchen staff, dishwashers and bussers) full of people who came from Mexico or Central America, with or without documents. In that sense, every restaurant is a "Mexican" restaurant."

 

Shrill accusations of hypocrisy are de rigueur in American political discourse. Politicians, pundits, and activists are forever accusing the other side of hypocrisy. No one ever stops to analyze just what is hypocrisy and does it apply to the case at hand.

Hypocrisy involves pretense. A hypocrite espouses a code of conduct that he pretends to follow, but doesn't. He is puffed up in public, while falling short in private.

But Trump is guilty of no pretense. He never said Americans should boycott Mexican restaurants. He never said Americans should avoid Mexican food. So there is no hypocrisy in his people patronizing Mexican cuisine.

Truong has confused hypocrisy with inconsistency. She thinks it's inconsistent to deport Mexican lawbreakers while enjoying Mexican cuisine. An odd opinion. What nation seeks to harmonize their laws on immigration and restaurant licensing? Israeli immigration laws favor Jews, yet Tel Aviv has many Chinese restaurants. Are Israelis hypocrites for enjoying Chinese food?

Essentially, Truong is accusing Trump officials of hypocrisy for not upholding Truong's subjective notions of consistency. Ah, no. You don't get to accuse others of hypocrisy for not acting consistently with your moral code. Trump officials are only hypocrites if they betray their own code, not Truong's.

Ironically, Truong is the hypocrite. She pretends outrage over Trump officials eating at Mexican restaurants. Yet imagine the opposite. If Trump urged Americans to boycott Mexican restaurants, Truong wouldn't say, "At least Trump's no hypocrite." Instead, she'd explode, "Trump is so anti-Mexican, he won't even eat in Mexican restaurants. How insane is that? What does eating Mexican food have to do with immigration policy?"

(Of course, were Trump to decry Mexican restaurants, he'd be as silly as those Neocons of 15 years ago who insisted that French Fries be renamed Freedom Fries, because France was insufficiently supportive of America's Iraq War. It seems the Left and Never Trumper Neocons share the same immature moral compass.)

Hypocrisy is also often confused with double standards. But without pretense, a double standard is not hypocrisy. A father who imposes a bedtime on his child, but not on himself, has a double standard, but where is the hypocrisy? Nor does it matter whether the double standard is reasonable, only that it's honest. "I get to stay up late because I'm the dad." That's as open, blatant, and honest as it gets.

Al Gore lectures others about the threat of greenhouse gases, while spewing great quantities of such gases into the environment via his private air travel and air conditioned mansions. A double standard. But not hypocrisy so long as he says, "It's okay for me to create greenhouses gases, but not for the little people."

Did Gore ever display such blatant honesty? I don't recall.

Hypocrisy is often confused with not following one's own standards or advice. But again, no pretense, no hypocrisy. A smoker who says, "Yeah, I know smoke. So trust me. Don't start," is no hypocrite even if he's a human chimney. He's not pretending to be Jack LaLanne. He's sharing advice that he's been unable to follow. It doesn't mean it's bad advice.

Which raises an important question. Why do so many politicians and pundits and activists accuse their opponents of hypocrisy? Because it shuts down debate. Because many people believe (wrongly) that a hypocrite's ideas should be dismissed outright. By accusing an opponent of hypocrisy, you avoid the difficult task of discrediting his ideas through facts, reason, and logic.

"You say you're pro-children, yet you oppose teacher pay raises. You're a hypocrite!"

"You say you're pro-freedom, yet you want border control. You're a hypocrite!"

"You say you're pro-military, yet you oppose money for [X] project. You're a hypocrite!"

"You say you're a patriot, yet you oppose [fill in the blank]. You're a hypocrite!"

Because hypocrisy has become an infinitely elastic accusation, any debate can be derailed by screaming hypocrite! No wonder our national political discourse has devolved into hit-and-run tweets and sound bites and shouting matches.

Even if someone is a hypocrite, so what? There are many worse moral failings. Hitler was no hypocrite. He said he hated Jews and he did something about it. Is that to his credit? Or would a more hypocritical Hitler, all talk but no action, have been the better man?

Don't all of us pretend, some time or other, to be better than we are? Isn't that what social media (with its Instagram filters and delete buttons) is about? Don't we all try to bury our negatives, and project a positive public image? I don't know what restaurants she eats at, but I'm guessing that even Monique Truong pretends to be better than she really is.