What matters more: that the other side is wrong, or that they’re hypocrites?
A lot of us might answer that with “what does it matter?” Others would claim that the other side, however defined and on whatever issue, are wrong because they’re hypocrites, or that the two facts are otherwise intimately connected. Most people, when pressed, would likely insist that they think wrongness is the bigger crime, but this isn’t always reflected in people’s rhetoric and behavior. There are conflicting moral intuitions here, one easier to invoke than the other, and going after an opponent’s sincerity provides a dirty, fallacious, and very tempting target. One can find this all over a wide variety of conversations, especially in politics, and it has a serious, occluding effect on our reasoning. One cannot present a positive story when one’s only rhetorical move is to impugn the other side’s honesty.
If one has watched someone levy an identical counteraccusation instead of making any attempt to actually defend themselves, one has seen this pattern in action. It is everywhere, and it makes jokers of us all. In a conversation dominated by this pattern, politics is a game of trying to catch the other side in a contradiction instead of an honest attempt to persuade people, promoting disillusionment, alienation, and disengagement along the way.
An example: American conservatives make sure that the issue of “budget deficits” and its corollaries never leave the American political conversation, presenting themselves as the keepers of “balanced budgets” and Democrats as feckless over-spenders. To a one, their opponents respond with bar graphs showing that, if anything, Democratic budget deficits are usually lower, catching the right in their hypocrisy. It’s not a useless impulse, but it’s one that prevents a far more fundamental conversation. As long as they are trapped in the mindset of shouting hypocrisy, they never stop to ask or answer, are deficits actually a bad thing?
Neither side cares about the actual question. Neither side wants an actual conversation on what budget deficits mean for a country like the United States. They both want this easy rhetorical cudgel, or to fearfully defend themselves from same, and effectively accept the neoliberal premise that budget deficits are a nightmare scenario in order to do that. Their angle begins and ends with catching the other side being apparently insincere. They focus on the hypocrisy because it keeps the rest of us from noticing this dodge and asking this question. When we follow suit, we damage our own reasoning and let their shared narrow view pass for the whole world of ideological possibility. They are not presenting visions: they are playing games.
(Before this gets too far away, that question has an answer that neither side likes, and it cuts to the core of both sides’ economic models. Countries that control their own currency do not have to indulge this question at all, and “balanced budgets” can be much, much worse for a country than “overspending.”)
One sees this unfolding in community dynamics as well, as a kind of back-and-forth social blackmail. One person makes an accusation, and instead of defending, the target levies a similar accusation back at their accuser, trying to destroy their credibility by asserting that they lack the moral standing required to levy that accusation in the first place. In an example close to home, when a famous atheist is accused of ethics lapses, their defenders come out of the woodwork to remind us all that X religious group has similar or greater lapses on their record. They want us to forget that this conversation should be about the truth or falsehood of the original accusation and what we are going to do about it, and turn it into a score-keeping exercise of us versus them.
But the place where I find this dynamic the most grating is, perhaps, the deeper reaches of the online left. Circles populated by self-identified Marxist-Leninists often have carefully rehearsed lines that they wield against critics of self-ascribed socialist and communist states around the world, and most of them are variations on this pattern. Bring up the persistence of the Kim family for three generations at North Korea’s helm, and they’re far more likely to point to capitalist monarchies or the US’s entrenched political families than to explain what makes this one different. Bring up the increasingly clear reality that something horrific is happening in the Chinese part of central Asia, and before any other defenses, they’ll remind their interlocutors of the fraction of the world’s prisoners held in American jails. Wonder at the visions of social credit schemes in China, and before they correctly inform the reader that Western reports of these are wildly overblown and often conflate multiple distinct law-enforcement practices or claim mere proposals are already-implemented reality, they’ll point out that the combination of social media and credit reports in the global west provides far more complete and intrusive surveillance on behalf of global capital, whose consequences are getting worse. And there are so, so many more.
These defenses make no attempt to counter the original claims, whether in truth or in moral consequence. Like the American mainstream’s tit-for-tat on budget deficits, their entire weight is devoted to marking the critic and the criticism not as wrong, but as fundamentally illegitimate. These are all questions that have answers or at least merit deeper examination, and in these conversations, that will not happen. They cannot have that discussion because even admitting whether or not they think those things are actually bad puts them in a more vulnerable position than they’re willing to countenance, and they haven’t thought through their own ideas well enough to survive that talk. It’s whataboutism, it’s tu quoque, it’s a contrarian impulse masquerading as an actual stance, and it’s a determined refusal to ask themselves what they actually value and defaulting to wanting whatever it takes for their team to win the conversation.
This pattern leads to stilted, Manichean thinking totally unsuited to a complex world. If whatever our side does is justified responses to legitimate concerns and whatever their side does is authoritarian overreach, even when the two are doing the same thing, progress is impossible. It treats the current reality as inevitable and expected rather than changeable and worth interrogating. And it takes away any sense of moral clarity, leaving nothing behind but insult, mindless loyalty, and the thrill of talking points.
Positive change does not come from the alienating spectacle of watching two sides do everything they can to prove the other is just like them. It comes from actual visions of what a better world could look like, and steps taken toward those visions. The enemy’s lack of sincerity doesn’t matter a tenth as much as how wrong they are, and we must behave accordingly. When they find us not living up to our promises, we must have a better answer than tu quoque, or we are not worth anything at all.