Today’s my birthday. When my husband asked what I wanted, I told him I wanted to feel young for a day. Spending the day in bed would have been one way to get my wish, but this is not what I had in mind: here we both are, in the grip of hacking colds. As I lie here, an adolescent spirit keeps whispering in my ear. I keep thinking about a feeling that animated much of my youth—and indeed the sixties youth movement of which I was a part: outrage at the hypocrisy of power, whether in the little world of school and family or the big world of states and nations. Be careful what you wish for!
Huge crowds gathered in Paris on Sunday for a solidarity march with victims of the previous week’s terrorist attacks on the wildly offensive satire publication Charlie Hebdo, and on patrons of a kosher supermarket. The victims were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists, and along with phalanxes of world leaders, there were pictures of marchers declaring the unity of all faiths. Thousands of people tweeted and posted an image of a Jew and a Muslim arm-in-arm wearing signs that read “je suis juif et j’aime les musulmans” and the reverse.
Many of my friends responded with links to commentary and cartoons calling out the hypocrisy of world leaders whose symbolic gestures in support of free expression contradict their own actions—detaining, torturing, and killing journalists in their own countries, for example.
This is undeniable. Hypocrisy is an equal opportunity employer. I would venture that every public display of official virtue is essentially hypocritical in that there is not a single nation on the face of this earth that lives up to its stated ideals. All of them have ways—granted, some far more draconian than others—to punish people who display an excess of expressive freedom by saying or showing sentiments the state finds objectionable, or merely by being a member of a vilified group.
State power is different from individual actions, of course, but the same applies, does it not? Who among us lives and acts in such congruence with espoused ethical and moral principles that the charge of hypocrisy cannot stick?
So I keep wondering what my friends who are calling out hypocrisy hope to accomplish by it. Certainly, it casts a shadow on the hundreds of thousands of ordinary hypocrites who turned out in Paris against hatred and intolerance. Certainly, it expresses something akin to the hurt and betrayal I recall from those long-ago youth movements. You claim to be an honorable person, we said to our elders, but I’ve seen who you really are.
Now these world leaders are standing up for perpetrators of deeply racist, sexist, offensive cartoons, my friends say, but they do not stand for others who are oppressed by their own policies. They prosecute some for exercising free speech, for instance; and protest when others are killed for it. Consider this very interesting New Yorker piece about differential treatment of Charlie Hebdo and the comments of French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.
Do my friends who are calling hypocrisy want to take the shine off whatever reflected glory world leaders might achieve by marching in Paris? Do they want to call the whole question of defending free expression for deeply offensive satire?
Do they fantasize that world leaders will return home and immediately eradicate censorship and other policies that restrict freedom of speech, association, or identity? Or—given that the easiest defense against hypocrisy is to stop proclaiming principles you don’t live up to— would they be satisfied for the moment with those leaders just staying home?
There’s been a flood of essays with titles that are variations on the theme “I Am Not Charlie.” Most of the authors want to defend the principle of free speech while condemning the ways Charlie Hebdo uses it. Pope Francis issued a tangle of casuistry defending free speech…so long as it doesn’t provoke or insult religion.
To me, it’s a good if imperfect thing when some of us stand publicly for the principle of free speech without conditions, even we hypocrites who may not have honored the principle in our own past actions. At least it starts a conversation. At least it can provoke self-reflection: if people who charge hypocrisy begin to question their certainty of their own virtue, that helps. If their charges actually do prod leaders toward a greater respect for liberty in both principle and practice, that helps. For me, what helps above all is to bring conscious awareness to our assumptions and thought processes, the antidote to all objectification. I’d like to get a free pass for my birthday, but sadly, today, as every day, #NousSommesHypocrites, and I can’t see much value in pretending otherwise.
Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, “Person to Person.”