There’s an essay by Robin Fishwick called In Defence of Hypocrisy which everyone should read. It’s very short but wonderfully perceptive, and it makes a point that should probably be made more often. In fact, I’m a walking illustrative example of Fishwick’s point. As mentioned recently, I was a strict vegetarian for most of my life; I did some hunt-sabbing in my late teens and I’ve been on a bunch of anti-vivisection or anti-whaling or anti-bloodsports demonstrations. I’d even put myself in the philosophically difficult position of believing that animals have certain ‘rights’ and that our behaviour towards them is in the sphere of ‘morality’.
However, since my early twenties, my footwear of choice has been the classic 7-eye, ankle-length Doc Martin black leather boot. And you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve been hassled about this fact. Confirmed carnivores, fresh from stuffing their faces in MacDonalds somehow feel justified in pointing out my ethical failing. “How can you wear leather boots”, they demand, “and yet still call yourself a vegetarian?” Of course by now I’ve developed a full repertoire of responses depending upon the person challenging me. My personal favourite is “The same way you can have shit for brains and still call yourself a human being”.
Thing is, my reasons for wearing leather Docs wouldn’t pass the ethical tests against which I judge the food I eat. I don’t have some great moral justification… it’s just that I really really like the boots, they’re very comfortable, and they work out quite cheap (despite not being cheap to buy) as they only need replacing every five years or so. I guess I’m simply failing to meet the ethical standards I have set for myself. I’m a hypocrite.
But I’m in good company. The vast majority of the people I truly admire have stuggled and continue to struggle to reach the standards they have set for themselves. If you’re reading this and thinking “Bah! I always achieve the standards I set”, then I humbly suggest you’ve not set them high enough. Albert Einstein, a great thinker and a profoundly moral man, was a strong proponent of vegetarianism for most of his life. But Einstein was also a human being with human failings and a real taste for German sausage. In letters to friends he wrote about his “terribly guilty conscience” every time he gave into temptation and ate his favourite food.
Should we deride the man for saying that “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet” and then occasionally succumbing to the temptation of a smoked sausage sarnie? Or should we celebrate him for recognising a truth and doing his best to live his life accordingly, even if he failed from time to time? If it’s flawless heroes you want, then the human race probably isn’t the best place to look for them. We are imperfect creatures, and those of us who strive to overcome those imperfections – despite knowing that battle can never be completely won – shouldn’t be berated for each stumble.
Passive Vs. Aggressive Hypocrisy
But that’s hardly the whole story. There’s a hypocrisy that can’t be defended. One that is not the passive failure of individuals to meet the standards they set for themselves, but the aggressive insistence of others that we all meet standards they themselves fail to achieve. This form of hypocrisy can usually be seen in the three ‘P’s (parents, priests and politicians). So a child is threatened with a grounding if they get caught with a cigarette, despite the father smoking 40 a day. The congregation is threatened with eternal damnation if they steal, by a priest pilfering cash from the poor-box. And the public get threatened with a criminal record and imprisonment if they possess cannabis, by a politician who was an occasional toker for several years of his life.
All three of those are utterly indefensible. If a father wishes to punish his child for smoking a cigarette (not an unreasonable thing to do by any means) then he needs to give them up first. If a priest wishes to be a moral leader; to proscribe a standard of behaviour and threaten punishment for those who fail to achieve it; then that priest needs to live to that standard. And if a politician wants to enforce a law under which cannabis smokers are jailed or receive a criminal record (along with the various restrictions that places on the rest of your life), then that politician better not have been a toker himself.
Here’s an interesting question… does anyone believe it would have been possible for David Cameron to become leader of the British Conservative Party if he had a criminal record? Oh come on Tories! Be honest, there’s just no fricking way he’d even have gotten selected as an election candidate. Yet Mr. Cameron and his party have a policy that states clearly that Mr. Cameron should have been criminalised for his earlier actions. I love the description of the punishment Cameron received when his cannabis-smoking was discovered at Eton…
Eton launched an investigation into reports that some boys were buying drugs in the nearby town. During the course of the inquiry, Cameron and a number of other pupils admitted smoking pot…
Cameron was ‘gated’- meaning that he was deprived of school privileges and barred from leaving the premises or being visited by friends or family. His punishment lasted for about a week.
An Eton contemporary said the punishment had been particularly humiliating for the future Leader of the Opposition because it had come shortly before the annual ‘Fourth of June’ gala day, when the college is thrown open to pupils’ parents, relatives and friends who are invited to enjoy exhibitions, speeches, sports events and the traditional ‘Procession of Boats’.
‘Cameron was gated just beforehand, so his parents, who had been looking forward to spending the day with him, had to apologise to their friends,’ the student said. ‘It was all painfully embarrassing. But after that he pulled himself together and became an exemplary pupil.’
Awwww… poor lickle David… gated for a full week! And all that embarrassment. Meanwhile the latest Tory policy statement I can find on the subject of cannabis demands that the government reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug (rather than Class C as it’s currently classified). This means the Tory Party believe that anyone caught in possession of cannabis should be jailed for between 3 months and 5 years, receive a minimum fine of GBP2,500 and have a criminal record for the rest of their lives.
The Tories are prepared to forgive Cameron his youthful indiscretions of course. They’ve just spent over a decade in the wilderness with one unelectable leader after another; political expediency demands that they turn a blind eye to Cameron’s pot-smoking (and coke-snorting allegedly) days. But that’s just not good enough. The only reason David Cameron is within touching distance of power is because the policy he proposes regarding cannabis possession doesn’t apply to him.
Careful with that Vote
I was talking about the upcoming Irish elections with a friend recently. He was advocating a vote for Fine Gael for tactical reasons (a classic ‘anyone but the incumbent’ strategy that involves voting for the strongest opposition even if you don’t like them). “But D,” I argued, “you can’t vote for Fine Gael… you’re a pot head!” He dismissed this initially by pointing out that he didn’t vote on single issues. “Yeah, but this is one hell of a single issue D. You’re electing someone who wants to put you in prison. Who wants to take your family, your home and your job away from you. It’s sheer insanity for you to want that person in power.”
He’s reconsidering his position.
And I damn well hope David Cameron is reconsidering his. I’d love to ask him whether he believes his life would be better had his cannabis possession been subjected to the punishment he advocates for others? Would Mr. Cameron be a better, more-productive member of society if he’d been expelled from school, spent three months in a juvenile detention centre, and received a criminal record barring him from numerous positions (as well as travel to several countries)? Would society be better off to have one more half-educated ex-con with a chip on his shoulder?
We are all of us hypocrites from time to time, but David Cameron is guilty of an aggressive hypocrisy that makes him dangerous and untrustworthy and – I sincerely hope – entirely unelectable.
UPDATE: It strikes me that being “a half-educated ex-con with a chip on his shoulder” probably qualifies as “a better, more-productive member of society” than does Leader of the Conservative Party. However I suspect Mr. Cameron doesn’t think that.