This column contains references to sexual assault and harassment that may be troubling to some readers.
As sexual assault and harassment slowly gained deserved attention in politics over the past couple of years, the effect on the highest-profile Democrats and Republicans has been rather different (at the lower levels, the effects have been more even). For instance, while Republicans Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh successfully pushed aside allegations of sexual assault or abuse on their way into office, Democrats Al Franken and Eric Schneiderman quickly resigned their posts in the wake of similar allegations.
The reason for this might seem simple: perhaps the left simply cares more about issues of sexual assault and harassment than does the right. Trump did not need to defend himself against sexual assault allegations: his constituency didn’t care. And as a Supreme Court nominee, Kavanaugh only had to convince two Republican senators to give him the benefit of the doubt; the others were already happy to turn a blind eye.
Al Franken, on the other hand, faced pressure from over half of the Democratic senators to resign. Eric Schneiderman, clearly expecting the same pressure to befall him, resigned within hours of the publication of the New Yorker report against him.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. It wasn’t that Trump and Kavanaugh admitted to the accusations and that the right still didn’t care. Rather, they vehemently and repeatedly denied the allegations, and the right gave them the benefit of the doubt where it was convenient.
Why, then, haven’t Democrats followed Republicans in nodding credulously as their colleagues deny any wrongdoing? Perhaps at one level Democrats are dutifully taking Michelle Obama’s phrase “when they go low, we go high” to heart. But at another level, they have no choice. If Democrats responded as Republicans did when members of their own party were accused of sexual assault, they would look worse than Republicans. Democrats would be hypocrites, exactly because it’s been Democrats who have largely championed the movement to support victims of sexual assault.
Logically, appealing to hypocrisy is a fallacy. If I say “meat is murder” and you respond “you can’t talk! You had a hamburger at lunch,” you imply I’m a hypocrite, and therefore that my words hold no weight. But whether or not meat is actually murder has nothing to do with whether or not I ate a hamburger at lunch, so your response does not in itself refute my claim.
Regardless of logic, though, the accusation of hypocrisy has serious intuitive weight — “you had a hamburger at lunch” is an intelligible and ethically relevant accusation against the vegetarianism proselytizer. To take another example: if we accuse Schneiderman, a Democrat and champion of the #MeToo movement, of hypocrisy, we’re not just saying that his inconsistency is a reason to take sexual assault less seriously. We’re saying also, or instead, that Schneiderman has committed the moral failing of doing something that he himself condemns. This latter accusation, in contrast to the former, is not fallacious.
But these two meanings create a dangerous ambiguity in the accusation of hypocrisy. While I might use it to condemn Schneiderman of a moral failing, someone else might use it to undermine the idea that we should take sexual assault seriously. These uses can be combined, confused and conflated. And Republicans have used its ambiguous implications with great success to claim the moral high ground on sexual assault, even as they say it has been overblown.
When Democrats have been accused of sexual assault, Republicans have pointed out the hypocrisy of Democrats’ sermonizing on sexual assault while in Democrats’ own ranks have included the wrongdoers they condemn. They have expressed outrage that Democrats attacked Republicans who were accused of sexual assault when similar allegations have been leveled against Democrats. This has served the two goals: the goal of suggesting that the Democrats, being hypocrites, are morally inferior, and the goal of undermining any moral standing the Democrats have for pushing sexual assault as an issue.
Republicans get a two-in-one. They get to claim the moral high ground (being the not-hypocrites about sexual assault), and they also have an excuse to turn a blind eye to sexual assault as an issue. After all, they say, if the Democrats had a serious moral case to make, we would listen — but clearly they don’t, because they’re hypocrites.
Calling someone “hypocrite!”, then, is a perniciously deceptive accusation. Properly speaking, Republicans have two options of attack. If sexual assault is wrong, then Democrats are to be condemned when they commit sexual assault. But then Republicans should be similarly condemned. If sexual assault is fine, then Democrats are wrong to impugn the character of both Democrats and Republicans, but neither Republicans nor Democrats should be punished for committing sexual assault.
So we get different standards for Republicans and Democrats. The appeal to hypocrisy makes little sense if we think about it, but it is easy to make and its fallacies are tricky to pick apart.
The “hypocrisy” attack is especially pernicious because it discourages ethical stances: taking an ethical stance that sexual assault is wrong opens one up to the accusation of hypocrisy, and with it, the loss of one’s moral credibility. We will make no ethical progress, however, if such ethical stances are not taken, and so we would be much better off if we understood the confused nature of the “hypocrisy” attack.
It’s not only Republicans who’ve used the hypocrisy attack to great effect: I suspect that most times the accusation of hypocrisy arises, something suspect is going on in argumentation. The past few years of sexual assault cases in American politics, however, provide one of the most egregious examples. The accusation of hypocrisy is easy to make, hard to untangle, and obfuscates the central issues — here, that of sexual assault — by raising more abstract questions of moral consistency. But the intuitive appeal of the accusation of hypocrisy means unfortunately that we will be hearing it for the foreseeable future.
Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.