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Hypocratic Oath

December 31, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

It is possible to use the internet to commit a crime. For example, one could use a Silk Road-like website to acquire a controlled substance it is illegal to possess in one’s geographical jurisdiction, or simply use the web’s myriad means of communication to coordinate a financial fraud.

It also is possible to commit an internet crime. The social and commercial interactions that occur within the internet itself are subject to a sort of moral code, and, for all of the flexibility and fluidity the web as a virtual space would seem to offer, one of the highest internet crimes arises out of inconsistency. For many in this realm, there is no greater offense than to be indicted for the offense of hypocrisy. And, indeed, indictment and conviction are nearly simultaneous in this medium, with sentencing following quite swiftly thereafter.

The internet remembers all, or sufficiently all, anyway, to retain record of those off-color tweets you sent years before you took a public stand against others who said similar things, and when someone else finds those old tweets, man are you going to look silly. One of the things at which human brains excel is detecting patterns, and when the alleged hypocrite expresses something apparently inconsistent with his or her prior positions, a little nugget of pleasure releases inside those brains upon the presentation of the irrefutable evidence from the historical record. Guilty on the spot.

The web-seductiveness of exposing apparent hypocrites is so alluring that it makes it easy to forget that hypocrisy, for all its attendant failings, is a sort of derivative or second-level offense, and our obsession with rooting it out can obscure or overwhelm what often is a serious substantive problem underlying the procedural default. In that way, for example, we frequently focus on an evaluation of the authenticity of an entertainment personality’s expressed opposition to the mistreatment of women when we subsequently find that she or he previously engaged in similar (or maybe even not that similar, but, hey, close enough) mistreatment in the past, rather than the actually bad problem itself. (This also touches on why otherwise uninvolved people “coming out as” anti-rape, anti-Nazi, etc., contributes very little to the general good.) Sexual harassment in the workplace and racism in public policy are two very real and significant issues that require real, meaningful effort to address, and yet we are so easily distracted from this work by the thrill of hypocrite hunting.

In the context of last month’s Senate election in Alabama, in which Doug Jones ultimately defeated Roy Moore by a margin the narrowness of which made many uncomfortable, Jonah Goldberg wrote for the Los Angeles Times about the dangers of our national distraction:

This obsession with hypocrisy leads to a repugnant immorality. In an effort to defend members of their team, partisans end up defending the underlying behavior itself. After all, you can only be a hypocrite if you violate some principle you preach. If you ditch the principle, you can dodge the hypocrisy charge. We’re seeing this happen in real time with some of Moore’s defenders, just as we saw it with Clinton’s in the 1990s.

Jonah Goldberg, Taking harassment seriously also requires making serious distinctions, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 2017.

Or, as another thoughtful observer put it in sometimes cruder terms:

Wishing everyone a safe and happy new year filled with a renewed focus and energy for addressing some of our real problems in 2018.

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