Hypocrites and Literocrites

In this episode involving my co-bloggers Dahlia Lithwick and Richard Ford (I checked it out because I wanted to confirm that they have corporeal existences and are not merely algorithms invented by Slate’s IT staff), Dahlia accuses the Bush administration of hypocrisy for claiming, in the Omar and Munaf case, to be concerned about respecting the sovereignty of foreign countries.  The Bush administration, after all, did not care so much about the sovereignty of Iraq as to refrain from invading that country.  Iraq aside, is it hypocrisy for a nation to profess respect for international law but then to violate international law whenever doing so is in its self-interest, when all other nations are doing the same thing?

Hypocrisy is something more than dishonesty: not all liars are hypocrites.  It seems to have more to do with lying about one’s character.  A hypocrite holds himself out to be sincere, courageous, respectful, honorable, and in all other respects virtuous, when he or she is none of those things.  However, often hypocrisy is a socially necessary trait, and we frequently observe groups of people profess respect for norms, ideals, or aspirations that no one obeys.  In such cases, you will often find a few individuals who refuse to go along with the game and pronounce themselves outraged that people are not acting consistently with their words.  We need a new word to describe these critics-people who confuse ordinary hypocrisy (which is bad) and social hypocrisy (which is necessary and unavoidable), and accuse everyone of hypocrisy because they act like human beings.  Let me propose a new word for this trait: literocrisy .  The literocrite condemns people for uttering social lies that no one believes.

When Captain Renault, says “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”, he’s not being a hypocrite, he is satirizing the literocrite.  When everyone understands that gambling is going on, even though everyone professes not to believe that gambling is going on, only the literocrite is outraged.  The literocrite believes that people should always be candid about their motives, even when there are good social or political reasons not to be.

Governments understand that they cannot always act consistently with public opinion, in their own countries and elsewhere.  And so governments rarely give candid explanations for their actions.  This is driven by political necessity: if your support is derived from a coalition of diverse groups, you want each group within the coalition to believe, as long as possible, that the government serves their interests.  And so when the groups’ interests converge in favor of a particular policy, but are based on different ideological commitments, the government wants to act consistently with the overlapping interest without risking controversy by taking a position on which of the ideological commitments it cares about–hoping to put that off till a later day when no such ambiguity remains possible.  When critics detect inconsistencies between the words and the behavior of governments, one can imagine the government officials saying to each other: “What literocrites!  Do they really believe that a functioning government can always be honest about its motivations?”  And, indeed, because some journalists are not literocrites, but understand exactly what is going on, while realizing that there is good copy in pointing out government hypocrisy, we should recognize that these literocrites are also hypocrites-professing to be literocritic when they really are not.

To be sure, some people are fooled by these governmental statements.  The hard case arises when insiders understand the lie and outsiders do not, but most observers would agree that the lie is socially necessary and probably harmless.  Here, there is a narrow line between literocrisy and mere truth-telling.

One of the great sources of literocritic confusion is the law.  Law professors (or most of them) have believed since the legal realist movement of the 1920s, that when judges decide cases according to the “law,” they are in fact smuggling in personal and political biases, whether they know it or not.  Judges virtually never admit that this occurs.  Many judges may not believe it, statistical evidence notwithstanding; others probably believe that admitting that their biases might influence their decisionmaking would weaken the legitimacy of the courts, even though bias is unavoidable and there is no realistic solution to the problem, and even though most (?) people suspect that judges have biases.  When journalists detect biases in judicial opinions, and express outrage, and accuse the judges of hypocrisy, they sound like literocrites to jaded law professors like me and Jack-who says that he was not “shocked, shocked” to hear from Dahlia that Supreme Court justices’ political biases were on display during oral argument.