The Larry Craig flap and the poverty of classical liberal values

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes of Sen. Larry Craig’s solicitation of sex in a public bathroom:

Craig’s behavior was lewd and dishonorable, but—have you noticed?—that isn’t the main reason he has been excoriated. In much journalistic and political commentary, the senator’s real crime is not that he was trolling for anonymous, adulterous sex in a public bathroom, but that [given Craig’s homophobic views] doing so supposedly proved him a hypocrite.

First, I share none of Jacoby’s concern with “lewd[ness]” or “trolling” and little for the “adultery.” (These terms are amalgams, each covering too mixed a set of behaviors to license wholesale judgment.) But as to the preoccupation with Craig’s “hypocrisy,” the author is certainly correct, a point he proceeds to document. I only came across Jacoby’s article in a search of my own after hearing sex columnist Dan Savage call Craig a “hypocrite” on The Colbert Report. All of which prompted the following reflections:

(1) Simply behaving in a way that contradicts one’s words is insufficient to qualify one as a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is a species of insincerity, whereby one claims to hold certain values but actually doesn’t. It amounts to not believing one’s own words. Larry Craig’s bathroom come-on, then, is a mark of hypocrisy only if it is evidence that he does not believe his own pronouncements against homosexuality. This, in turn, can only be assumed if we cannot imagine anyone ever doing something they think is wrong. Of course, inflammation of the “passions,” foundering will power, and the simple failure to think in ethical terms at all in the face of temptation have led each reader to commit acts that she knows are—in her view, anyhow—wrong. As noted by one Time columnist, “[I]f Craig truly believes homosexuality is wrong, his fault would be weakness, not hypocrisy.”

(2) Focusing on the Senator’s “hypocrisy” suggests that what is mainly problematic about his anti-homosexual statements is that they conflict with his deeds. This seems to imply that he would be undeserving of our criticism if only the statements and deeds matched up: Imagine that, contrary to 25 years of allegations, Craig had never engaged in a homosexual act—or that he were magically “rehabilitated” of these tendencies. Either way, Craig could go on producing homophobic statements and votes with pure “consistency.” This would erase the “hypocrisy” of his views; but surely it would not satisfy those “progressive” critics of Craig’s who talk like this is the main problem. So more than “hypocrisy” must be at issue.

Indeed, consistent practice can yield all kinds of nasty outcomes (all the nastier, sometimes, for its consistency). All manner and degree of horrible acts can be perpetrated by persons whose words are perfectly in step with their behavior. In such cases, the absence of “hypocrisy” does not temper our criticism of the crime. (Hitler—at risk of taking the cheap shot—would still be a sonuvabitch if he’d said he loved the Jews and was acting for their good.)

(3) Just as evil does not become less interesting when you subtract the hypocrisy, good or neutral behaviors do not become interesting just because someone performs them hypocritically. Consider, for a thought experiment: I could make statements that checkers are too dull to be worth the playing, yet pursue the game on the sly. Maybe I’m even a Senator and my previous statements on checkers have been published in a light-hearted article about how I pass time on the campaign bus. In itself, this “hypocrisy” is hardly worth noting. It is certainly not newsworthy.

But mine is the same “hypocrisy” as Craig’s! They both deserve condemnation, or neither. That the Senator’s “hypocrisy” is about a much more serious issue than checkers does not change this; for the issue is one thing, the hypocrisy about it, another. (To say that expressing a bad idea hypocritically makes the hypocrisy bad is like saying that expressing a bad idea in metaphor, or English, or by megaphone makes the metaphor, the English, or the megaphone bad.)

(4) This is compounded by the fact that all wrong acts (when committed by sane persons) are on some level hypocritical. This is true by definition: It would be impossible to morally criticize a person—to hold him responsible for his behavior—if we did not believe that the actor knew what he was doing was wrong. We could lament the behavior, regret that it happened, even educate the person to avoid the conduct in the future; but we could not hold him responsible. (This also works in reverse: In some cases we stop holding a person responsible after it is determined that they were, after all, insane, sleepwalking, or on a bad Ambien trip.) So the revelation that some misconduct is “hypocritical” is all the less interesting to the extent that every misconduct is (already) hypocritical.

* * *

To sum up so far: Craig may be a genuine hypocrite—He could, for all we know, think homosexuality is just fine after all. And this hypocrisy may be a bad thing. But, point being, it it isn’t clear that it is all that interesting a thing—certainly not in relation to the man or his wider “corpus” of bad works. In short, Larry Craig’s views on homosexuality are interesting not because they may conflict with some of his private behaviors, but because the views are fucked up dead wrong.

* * *

But while hypocrisy is pretty uninteresting, charges of hypocrisy like the ones launched against Larry Craig are interesting for what they say about the state of ethical discourse in our culture. Such charges reflect the [classical] liberal ethos which identifies “the individual” as the ultimate source of value. This individualism further unpacks into the idea that a person is doing well to the extent that he is free—that is, undetermined by any source external to himself; and the equation of this freedom with free choice. The liberal idea of “the good life” means freely choosing values for oneself and acting in accord with these.

Under this ethical framework, the only genuine moral transgression possible for the “choosing individual” is inconsistency. The idea is captured in the criticism that some person has failed to “be true to himself” or, in a hipper vein, to “be real.” [Without exception, every “house” reality show has a dramatic thread wherein one contestant sustains a campaign to discredit another as being “not real.”] Calling Craig a “hypocrite” is just another criticism of this basic type. Each example accuses an individual of failure to consistently live out the values he has chosen for himself.

To the extent we cast ethical questions as matters of consistency, moral discourse becomes corrupted—confused and limited in scope. Again, a person could “be real about” or “true to”—that is, consistently maintain—all sorts of reprehensible values and opinions. If we can only, or mostly, criticize “bad behavior” in light of how it may conflict with someone’s chosen values (e.g., as embodied in their statements), the vast scope of human behaviors will escape our moral lens.

[Note: Not that I believe many “liberals” would consciously assent to the view that their morality is limited in this way. But this is just to say that they do not consistently hold to their values. (Indeed, they can’t be consistently held.) But just as one needn’t know that her views reflect, say, racism, provincialism, or ignorance to be racist, provincial, or ignorant, one needn’t know her views imply a corrupted moral framework for them to actually do so.]

Given the liberal framework, those human behaviors that don’t “escape our moral lens” can only be critiqued on a rudimentary, insubstantial level. One illustration is the lover’s reproof that “It isn’t that you cheated on me, but that you lied to me about it.” (A lie being action inconsistent with what the actor says he wants, or values.) “You should have just told me you wanted to see other people.” Of course, in the typical case, the one making this statement would not take in casual stride a revelation that a long-time, committed lover around whom the cheated has organized her life would suddenly prefer to date outside the couple. But a climate of liberal values renders the weak charge of inconsistency the most ready-to-hand type of criticism. This moral reductionism prevents the full character of the transgression from ever being articulated: The culprit is left uneducated as to his real fault, “free” to commit the crime again, next time only “consistently.” (Conversely, the accuser is let off the hook, allowed to cast stones, perhaps unfairly, without doing the real work of building a strong case against the target.)

A liberal moral climate cuts the other way, too: For instance, to the extent that Pres. Bush gets great moral purchase from touting his “steadfastness”—again, his consistency—alone, he doesn’t really have to articulate those (alleged) initial values to which he is being steadfast. The issue becomes only whether he stays “true to” or wavers from some values, whatever these might be. (Of course, if the values are bad ones, we might much prefer a leader who waffles on them over one who consistently applies them. At least the former will be right about half the time.)

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