Ineffective Theory

Emergent Hypocrisy

There’s an interesting phenomenon where many individually honest people come together and form a hypocritical group. Take two issues: for instance, support for disruptive protest, and support for international free trade. Considering those two issues, our group might be made of:

This is a simplification of real life. In real life, plenty of people are open hypocrites, who believe bridges should be forcefully cleared only of the “wrong” protestors. Nevertheless, we’re going to look at groups consisting only of the honest and consistent. In particular, we’ll focus on the first category—the yellow faction—who oppose free trade and support disruptive protests, and the last category—the green faction—who oppose tariffs and support police breaking up protests by force if necessary.

One month, President Cain announces a free trade agreement with Ubekibekibekistanstan; predictably, protests break out. The next month, the U.S. withdraws and institutes tariffs instead. Again, disruptive protests appear. How do our hypothetical factions respond to these events?

After the first, pro-tariff protests, the yellow faction speaks out in unambiguous support. Many join the protesters; some suggest strikes; Twitter is lit up for days. “You’re either with us or against us.” Folks in the green faction are similarly united, except in condemnation rather than support, and advocate for the national guard to be called in to clear the protests out. Your Facebook feed is filled with videos of poorly behaved protestors. “Silence is violence.”

Now come the anti-tariff protests. Both factions find themselves in an awkward spot. From the green faction, we hear mumbled condemnation: “we agree with your cause of course, but your methods are not productive”. In the market of social media outrage-bait, these articles don’t sell very well. Meanwhile, when asked, everybody in the yellow faction says that they support the right to protest—but when the police come through and clear the streets, the objections are somewhat muted. Certainly they won’t join their fellow citizens in the streets! “Now is not the time.” In both factions, most choose to simply stay silent, rather than risk annoying their friends or betraying their consciences.

And what happens when someone calls out the hypocrisy? Responding to the accusation is easy. Every individual person can truthfully point out they’ve been consistent, either in supporting or opposing disruptive protest. What’s to complain about? “If the volume of my support has changed, perhaps it’s because I’m busier this week. Besides, I can’t be expected to fight every battle. This protest isn’t the most important thing happening right now.”

Many variations on the above story are possible. Common to all is some form of selective silence. Even people who successfully stick to their principles find themselves caring about some incidents more than about others. Some “strike close to home”, others are “complicated”. Individually understandable, collectively corrupted.

So how can one avoid contributing to group-level hypocrisy? The simplest approach is to say nothing, to join no group. This seems doomed to fail: eventually, there’ll be an incident that hits just the right combination of hot-button issues for you, and you’ll be compelled to speak out.

At the other extreme: speak out on every issue, no matter how minor or inconsequential. But of course, you don’t hear about every issue. Your local social graph is biased, and now your speech carries their biases with it. Nor do you have enough time and energy to guarantee that on every issue, your voice carries the same volume.

A more moderate course, though, might work. A sharp, clear, reasonably objective criterion for when to speak out, and when to not. Some people have a single issue, which they pursue with a fanatical single-mindedness, working hard to seek out every relevant incident. (For an example, see the free speech section at Jonathon Turley’s blog.) Another option, more workable for those with broader interests and less time, is to comment on those issues that directly affect us, or people sufficiently nearby in the social graph. This has other advantages too, for instance reducing the frequency with which I must comment on things I know nothing about. It’s also, in some sense, more “natural”. It removes power from the great movements that sweep over a whole nation, and works to reduce debates to local, concrete issues.

See also Freddie deBoer on a long-standing instance of this phenomenon.