Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyondby David Runciman
What kind of hypocrite should voters choose as their next leader? The question seems utterly cynical. But, as David Runciman suggests, it is actually much more cynical to pretend that politics can ever be completely sincere. The most dangerous form of political hypocrisy is to claim to have a politics without hypocrisy. Political Hypocrisy is a timely, and/i>
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What kind of hypocrite should voters choose as their next leader? The question seems utterly cynical. But, as David Runciman suggests, it is actually much more cynical to pretend that politics can ever be completely sincere. The most dangerous form of political hypocrisy is to claim to have a politics without hypocrisy. Political Hypocrisy is a timely, and timeless, book on the problems of sincerity and truth in politics, and how we can deal with them without slipping into hypocrisy ourselves. Runciman tackles the problems through lessons drawn from some of the great truth-tellers in modern political thought--Hobbes, Mandeville, Jefferson, Bentham, Sidgwick, and Orwell--and applies his ideas to different kinds of hypocritical politicians from Oliver Cromwell to Hillary Clinton.
Runciman argues that we should accept hypocrisy as a fact of politics, but without resigning ourselves to it, let alone cynically embracing it. We should stop trying to eliminate every form of hypocrisy, and we should stop vainly searching for ideally authentic politicians. Instead, we should try to distinguish between harmless and harmful hypocrisies and should worry only about its most damaging varieties.
Written in a lively style, this book will change how we look at political hypocrisy and how we answer some basic questions about politics: What are the limits of truthfulness in politics? And when, where, and how should we expect our politicians to be honest with us, and about what?
D. N. Ghosh
"A very intelligent, subtle, and learned guide to the classics and to the pre-eminent historical examples of hypocrisy from Mandeville and Hobbes, to Jefferson and the Victorians, with some concluding examples to illustrate the special problems of hypocrisy and sincerity in democracies."David Martin,Times Literary Supplement
"[Political Hypocrisy] contains a plethora of shrewd and quotable remarks. . . . What struck a chord with me was his gentle demolition of the idea that a politician's profession of his own sincerity, or passionate belief, proves anything at all."Samuel Brittan, Financial Times
"University of Cambridge political theorist David Runciman takes a far more textured, sophisticated approach to the phenomenon in Political Hypocrisy, a timely, long overdue study of one of public life's in-your-face puzzles."Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Political Hypocrisy is not just another denunciation of politicians as liars. Instead, it offers us a tour, from Hobbes and Mandeville to Bentham and Orwell. Runciman is best on the American revolutionaries and our eminent Victorians, perhaps because both the US war of independence and the British empire required self-aware democratic politicians to gloss over the gaps between their proclaimed beliefs and their actual behaviour."David Willetts, Prospect Magazine
"Political Hypocrisy is a deep and thought-provoking work."Tim Dunne, THE
"In the excellent Political Hypocrisy, British journalist David Runciman uses the 2008 campaign to test his thesis that hypocrisy and anti-hypocrisy are joined in a 'discrete system' and that our obsession with this antagonistic tango is making modern politics impossible."Richard King, The Australian Literary Review
"In a masterly survey of political philosophers, practitioners and writers, he has brought out how they have dealt with hypocrisy in politics and addressed the question of when it is worth worrying over and when it is not worth worrying."D. N. Ghosh, Economic & Political Weekly
"Runciman's book should be appreciated for its attempt to present an alternateand historicalapproach to the issue of political hypocrisy. He successfully delves into the many fine distinctions that make up each theorist's approach and response to hypocrisy, which is particularly useful for a topic that so utterly lacks a clear division between black and white, and what is right and wrong."Kiku Huckle, Peace and Justice Studies
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Read an ExcerptPolitical Hypocrisy The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond
By David Runciman Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction This is a book about hypocritical politicians, and about some of the ways we might learn to view them. There is a lot of hypocrisy at work in contemporary politics-no doubt we all have our favourite examples, from the moralising adulterers to the mudslinging do-gooders. But although it is fairly easy to point the finger at all this hypocrisy, it is much harder to know what, if anything, to do about it. The problem is that hypocrisy, though inherently unattractive, is also more or less inevitable in most political settings, and in liberal democratic societies it is practically ubiquitous. No one likes it, but everyone is at it, which means that it is difficult to criticise hypocrisy without falling into the trap of exemplifying the very thing one is criticising. This is an intractable problem, but for that reason, it is nothing new, and in this book I explore what a range of past political thinkers have had to say about the difficulty of trying to rescue politics from the most destructive forms of hypocrisy without simply making the problem worse. The thinkers that I discuss-from Thomas Hobbes to George Orwell-are not the usual ones who are looked to for guidance on matters of hypocrisy and duplicity. This is because as champions of a straight-talking approach to politics they canappear either naively or wilfully cut off from the fact that hypocrisy is something we have to learn to live with. But in fact, I believe these are precisely the thinkers who can help us to understand the role that hypocrisy does and ought to play in political life, because they saw the problem of hypocrisy in all its complexity, and were torn in their responses to it. In this introduction, I will explain why I think these particular authors can serve as a guide to our own concerns about political double standards, and why they are better suited to that task than the writers-from Machiavelli to Nietzsche-who are more often assumed to be telling us the truth about the limits of truthfulness in politics.
Hypocrisy: an "ordinary" vice
One of the best places to begin any discussion of the problem of hypocrisy in liberal democratic politics is with the classic treatment of this question in Judith Shklar's Ordinary Vices (1984). In that book, Shklar makes the case for ranking the vices according to the nature of the threat that they pose to liberal societies. The vice that emerges as the worst of all, and by far, is cruelty. The other vices, Shklar suggests, are therefore not so bad, and this includes the one with which she begins her discussion: the vice of hypocrisy. She wants us (the inhabitants of liberal societies) to stop spending so much time worrying about hypocrisy, and to stop minding about it so much. But it is difficult not to mind about hypocrisy, for two reasons. First, it is so very easy to take a dislike to it-on a basic human level, there is something repulsive about hypocrisy encountered at first hand, since no one enjoys being played for a fool. Second, for everyone who does take a dislike to it, it is so very easy to find. "For those who put hypocrisy first," Shklar writes ("first" here meaning ranked worst among the vices), "their horror is enhanced precisely because they see it everywhere"; and this means, in particular, that they see it everywhere in politics.
The specific political problem is that liberal societies are, or have become, democracies. Because people don't like hypocrisy, and because hypocrisy is everywhere, it is all too tempting for democratic politicians to seek to expose the inevitable double standards of their rivals in the pursuit of power, and votes. Take the most obvious contemporary instance of this temptation: negative advertising. If you wish to do the maximum possible damage to your political opponent in thirty seconds of airtime, you should try to paint him or her as a hypocrite: you must highlight the gap between the honeyed words and the underlying reality, between the mask and the person behind the mask, between what they say now and what they once did. And negative advertising works, which is why it proves so hard to resist for any politician, particularly those who find themselves behind in the polls, and certainly including those who have promised to foreswear it. Shklar does not discuss negative advertising, but she does say this, which is almost impossible to dispute: "It is easier to dispose of an opponent's character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show his political convictions are wrong."
Shklar thinks we have got all this the wrong way around, that we are worrying about hypocrisy when we should be worrying about our intolerance for it. She highlights the risks for liberal democracies of too great a reliance on "public sincerity," which simply leaves all politicians vulnerable to charges of bad faith. We should learn to be more sanguine about hypocrisy, and accept that liberal democratic politics are only sustainable if mixed with a certain amount of dissimulation and pretence. The difficulty, though, is knowing how to get this mixture right. The problem is that we do not want to be sanguine about the wrong kinds of hypocrisy. Nor ought we to assume that there is nothing we can do if mild forms of hypocrisy start to leach into every corner of public life. In some places, a tolerance for hypocrisy can do real harm. After all, some forms of hypocrisy are inherently destructive of liberalism itself, even in Shklar's terms. For example, allowing people to treat government-sanctioned torture as a necessary resource of all political societies in extremis, no matter how liberal their public principles, would simply let in cruelty by the back door. Equally, it would be counter-productive to tolerate hypocrisy about our tolerance for hypocrisy: it hardly makes sense to permit politicians to get away with renouncing negative advertising while their underlings carry on spreading poison about their opponents behind the scenes. Yet negative advertising only works because it works on us; so politicians caught out in this way might legitimately claim that we are the ones being hypocritical about our tolerance for hypocrisy, since the reason they keep coming back to the well of poison is because it is the only reliable way to get our attention. Clearly, a line needs to be drawn somewhere between the hypocrisies that are unavoidable in contemporary political life, and the hypocrisies that are intolerable. But it is hard to see where. Shklar does not offer much advice about where and how to draw this line, except to remind us that it will not be easy, because, as she puts it, "what we have to live with is a morally pluralistic world in which hypocrisy and antihypocrisy are joined to form a discrete system."
This book is an attempt to tease apart some of the different sorts of hypocrisy at work in the morally pluralistic world of modern politics, using the history of political thought as a guide. It is not unusual to see the history of ideas as an appropriate place to look for guidance on these matters. Shklar herself does it in Ordinary Vices, where she draws not just on philosophers (such as Hegel) but also playwrights (above all Molière, the man who gave us "tartuffery") and novelists (including Hawthorne and Dickens) for insights into the intricate dance of hypocrisy and anti-hypocrisy, the constant round of masking and unmasking that makes up our social existence. Other authors have sought to supplement Shklar's account by going back to the great scourges of well-meaning sanctimony in the history of political thought, such as Machiavelli and Rousseau, who together provide the inspiration for Ruth Grant's Hypocrisy and Integrity (1997); or Rousseau and Nietzsche, who provide two of the main sources for Bernard Williams's meditation on the perils of authenticity in Truth and Truthfulness (2002). But what is much rarer is an attempt to seek some answers in the classic liberal tradition itself. Indeed, Grant argues that the liberal tradition is precisely the wrong place to look. "The appreciation of the necessity for political hypocrisy," she writes, "and the perspective of the liberal rationalist are simply at odds with each other." She goes on: "Liberal theory does not take sufficient account of the distinctive character of political relations, of political passions, and of moral discourse and so underestimates the place of hypocrisy in politics." By liberal rationalists, Grant says she means writers like Hobbes, Locke, and Adam Smith. The reason she thinks we must go back to Machiavelli when considering the role of hypocrisy in political life is that in her view none of these other authors have anything of use to tell us on the subject. But Grant is wrong about this, and she is therefore wrong about the failures of liberal theory to make sense of hypocrisy. In this book I hope to show why.
There is a weak and a strong version of the case Grant makes. The weak version says that because liberal rationalists are precommitted to the importance of truthfulness in politics, they simply don't understand why hypocrisy is inevitable. The strong version says that they do understand, but are simply pretending not to, which makes them the worst hypocrites of all. This is often what people mean when they talk about hypocrisy as the English vice, so it is easy to see why English liberals often strike outsiders as the very worst of hypocrites, particularly when their liberal rationalism turns into liberal imperialism. In this book, I will be looking at a broadly liberal rationalist tradition of English political thought starting with Hobbes, and stretching up to Victorian imperialism and beyond. Of course, by its very Englishness it cannot be taken to be definitive of what Grant calls liberal rationalism (for example, I will only be discussing Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume in passing). Moreover, it is not the whole of English liberal rationalism, since I will be bypassing John Locke as well. It includes one Anglicised Dutch writer (Mandeville) and one American detour, into the arguments surrounding American dependence and independence at the end of the eighteenth century, since these were in their own ways arguments about the nature of English hypocrisy, and about whether there was a nonhypocritical way of confronting it. The authors discussed in this book constitute a highly selective sample in what is a broad field. But what connects them is the fact that they have important things to say about the nature of political hypocrisy, and this is related to the fact that they were often thought to be the worst of hypocrites themselves.
Certainly it is hard to think of any political thinkers who have faced the charge of hypocrisy more often than the ones I will be discussing in what follows: Hobbes, Mandeville, Franklin, Jefferson, Bentham, Sidgwick, Orwell are some of the great anti-hypocrites of the liberal tradition, which makes them in many people's eyes its arch-hypocrites as well. But this is unfair, as well as inaccurate: their anti-hypocrisy was much more subtle and complicated than that would suggest. These authors have some of the most interesting and useful things to say about hypocrisy, precisely because they were conscious of its hold on political life, even as they tried to escape it. In other words, they were struggling with the problem from the inside, and could see that it was a problem, unlike those (Machiavelli, Rousseau, Nietzsche) who have looked at the hypocrisy of liberal (or in an earlier guise, "Christian") politics from the outside, and saw only how easy it would be to pull aside the mask, which is what they did.
The writers that I will be discussing in this book are the ones who were willing to keep the mask in place, despite or because of the fact that they were also truth-tellers, committed to looking behind the mask, and revealing what they found there. Keeping the mask in place while being aware of what lies behind the mask is precisely the problem of hypocrisy for liberal societies; indeed, it is one of the deepest problems of politics that we face. These writers were also specifically concerned with problems of language, and the difficulty of saying what you mean in a political environment in which there are often good reasons not to mean what you say. They are therefore the people we should be looking to for help in thinking about the puzzle that Shklar leaves us with, because it was a puzzle for them too, and there are no easy answers to be found here. Thinkers like Machiavelli make it too easy for us to dismiss hypocrisy as a political problem altogether. What's much harder to make sense of is why it remains such a problem for us in the first place.
The Varieties of Hypocrisy
Something else that connects the writers I will be discussing in this book is that they all understood that hypocrisy comes in a variety of different forms, which is why it is so important to separate them out, rather than lumping them all together. There is always a temptation to sweep a range of different practices under the general heading of hypocrisy, and then condemn them all out of hand. But in reality the best one can ever do with hypocrisy is take a stand for or against one kind or another, not for or against hypocrisy itself. We might regret the prevalence of hypocrisy, but if we want to do anything about it we have to get beyond generalised regret, and try instead to identify the different ways in which hypocrisy can be a problem. As a result, I am not going to try to provide a catch-all definition of what hypocrisy is, nor of how it must relate either to sincerity on the one hand or to lying on the other. A variety of different forms of sincerity, hypocrisy, and lies will emerge over the course of this book, and a variety of different relationships between them. But I do want to offer a preliminary account of how the concept of hypocrisy is able to sustain such a range of different interpretations, in order to set these later discussions in context. To do so, it is necessary to go back to the origins of the term.
The idea of hypocrisy has its roots in the theatre. The original "hypocrites" were classical stage actors, and the Greek term (hypokrisis) meant the playing of a part. So in its original form the term was merely descriptive of the theatrical function of pretending to be something one is not. But it is not difficult to see why the idea should have acquired pejorative connotations, given the various sorts of disapproval that the theatrical way of life has itself attracted over the centuries. People who play a part are potentially unreliable, because they have more than one face they can display. The theatre sets some limits to this unreliability by its own conventions (the stage is a space that provides us with some guarantees that what we are seeing is merely a performance, though a good performance will try to make us forget this fact). But actors encountered off the stage may have the ability to play a part without their audience being aware of what is going on. To play a part that does not reveal itself to be the playing of a part is a kind of deception, and hypocrisy in its pejorative sense always entails a deception of some kind.
However, this deception, once it is not bounded by the conventions of the stage, can take many different forms. The earliest extension of the term was from theatre to religion, and to public (and often highly theatrical) professions of religious faith by individuals who did not actually believe what they were saying. The act here is an act of piety. But hypocrisy has also come to describe public statements of principle that do not coincide with an individual's private practices-indeed, this is what we most often mean by hypocrisy today, where the duplicity lies not in the concealment of one's personal beliefs but in the attempt to separate off one's personal behaviour from the standards that hold for everyone else (as in the phrase "It's one rule for them, and one rule for the rest of us"). But this is by no means the only way of thinking about hypocrisy. Other kinds of hypocritical deception include claims to knowledge that one lacks, claims to a consistency that one cannot sustain, claims to a loyalty that one does not possess, claims to an identity that one does not hold. A hypocrite is always putting on an act, but precisely because it is an act, hypocrisy can come in almost any form.
Excerpted from Political Hypocrisy by David Runciman
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
David Runciman is reader in political theory at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity Hall. He is the author of "The Politics of Good Intentions" (Princeton), and writes regularly about politics for the "London Review of Books".
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