A short while back, Susanna Spiegel had an op-ed critical of hypocrisy-focused criticisms in politics. I've long had the view that most hypocrisy-hunting in politics is counterproductive, so expected to agree with it, but I find I don't. I think part of the problem is that by the end of the article it has become clear that what Spiegel is in fact doing is accusing anti-hypocrites of hypocrisy on very thin grounds; that is, Spiegel can't get through even a short op-ed on the importance of skepticism about anti-hypocrisy without engaging in some very un-skeptical anti-hypocrisy. This is because, I think, of a failure to recognize the reason why hypocrisy-hunting is so entrenched in modern politics: namely, broadly democratic or liberal social norms force people to argue on an ad hominem (in Locke's sense of 'on the opponent's principles', not the fallacy sense) basis, rather than on the basis of established principles or of authority, and doing this guarantees that the most effective criticism will usually be pointing out your opponent's inconsistency. In recognizing the real problem is usually not hypocrisy as such but what one is being hypocritical about, Spiegel comes close to recognizing this, since what she gives is effectively an argument for the superiority of (to use Locke's terminology again) ad iudicium argument, but the fact of the matter is that Spiegel has no actual means or mechanism for making ad iudicium more effective than ad hominem. And how could there be any such means or mechanism? It would require a non-democratic society to guarantee it. In a democratic society you have to accept divergence and disagreement from the beginning, and thus can't always appeal to a mutually recognized framework, whether of principle or of authority, rising above the disputing mass.
Spiegel regularly appeals to 'democracy' (which she opposes to 'authoritarianism'), by which (as far as I can tell) she means her own preferred politics. As she puts it:
But anti-hypocrisy can be hacked. It can present hypocrisy itself as the problem. Instead of being a tool for opposing violations of valued democratic principles, charges of hypocrisy can be a tool to confuse or paralyze, creating a set of options only an authoritarian could love.This is a second problem with her argument, namely, that everybody in a democratic society thinks their opponents a threat, or at least more of a threat, to democracy. A democracy is a society in which people accuse each other of abetting the slide into tyranny practically every day. The people Spiegel criticizes in her op-ed are not going about cackling maniacally about usurpation of power; they appeal to 'the people', they appeal to 'democracy', they appeal to the need to 'overturn corruption' which is robbing people of their 'rights'. Thus it's no good to try to present the contrast like this; it ends up looking very much like an argument that Spiegel should be allowed to be against the hypocrisy of her opponents and nobody should be allowed to be against her own. It's a common problem with academics talking politics: they are always tempted to rationalize the politics of their social circle as if it were the One True Political View, the universal politics whose perspective should be assumed in diagnosing others. And it's easy to forget that other people are not assuming your One True Political View, but their own.
There is a more complicated problem with the core idea in the argument, which is that criticizing hypocrisy leads to indifferentism:
These remarks divert attention away from the vices of social inequality and political murder, and redirect it to hypocrisy. “Don’t criticize my side, because yours is no better.” If both parties endorse racism, then there can be no basis for criticizing racism — we are simply stuck with it. If everyone is a killer, there can be no basis for criticizing killers. If purported democracies act like autocracies, there is no real difference between these regimes.
I'm usually regarded as a cynic about people in politics, but I am apparently more optimistic about people than Spiegel is. I don't think it's usually the case that the point of the hypocrisy allegations is "Don't criticize my side, because yours is no better". Rather, I think the point is, "I know that you are only criticizing my side on this because you are trying to slime me, not because you want to address the actual problem. Show that you are genuinely serious about the same problem on your side at the same time if you want me to treat it as more than just a rhetorical tactic; I'm not going to take your criticism as a real issue in this argument until you show that you are treating it as a real issue yourself." If everyone is a killer, you can still criticize killing; what you cannot do is treat killing as if it were a ground for treating yourself as superior to other people. If we are all killers, it's pointless to try to attack anyone for being a killer; since it's a common problem, the only reasonable solution is to try to work with people to solve it rather than use it to score points in debate. If I am attacking you for being racist, treating your views as views to be dismissed because you are racist, that pretty clearly suggests that I think I am not a racist; and it is a reasonable defense at least to try to show that, by my own standards or at least common standards, I am as racist as you. In short, Spiegel is confusing 'no basis for criticizing racism' with 'no basis for trying to disadvantage me in this argument specifically on the grounds of racism'. Indeed, the anti-hypocritical argument would usually assume that racism is criticizable; the claim is usually more that the mote in my eye does not make you righteous given the beam in yours.
Again, Spiegel comes close to recognizing this:
If we can’t choose sides on the basis of what either party does, we must instead choose on the basis of loyalty: With whom do we identify? And if you don’t identify with either figure, you won’t be motivated to choose at all. As one glum undecided voter from Maine put it recently, slouching toward apathy: “It doesn’t matter who we choose, we’re pretty much screwed either way.”
What Spiegel is not, I think, seeing, is that the anti-hypocritical defense is operating precisely on the assumption that the other side is already only acting on the basis of loyalty. If I don't think you are a partisan hack, we can sit down and give our reasons for our views; if you start attacking my party for things I think your party does, I'm not going to see you as giving reasons for choosing but as trying to smear me through a blind loyalty to your own party. And yet again, this is an assumption that will turn out true quite often in a broadly democratic or liberal society, where you overcome opposition by seizing the rhetorical advantage.
It is possible that Spiegel is right about anti-hypocritical arguments being something that can be high-jacked by authoritarianism. I'm myself inclined to the Platonic view that all democratic rhetoric and argument can be twisted in an authoritarian direction; the reason why people in democratic societies end up obsessing so much about authoritarianism is not that they are opposites but that democracy easily tips over into authoritarianism. It's a recurring problem: tyrants rarely take over in the name of tyranny but often take over in the name of 'the people'. And it's certainly possible that anti-hypocritical arguments contribute to this. But anti-hypocritical arguments are pretty clearly an unavoidable feature of democratic politics, and nothing in democratic politics makes it so that only one side can use them. Everything Spiegel criticizes is just how democratic politics will usually work.