Image edited by Web Investigator. Former British prime minister Tony Blair in 2017. Photo by Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg/Getty
In politics, as in militant religion, the performance of sincerity is everything, no matter whether right or wrong
A generation ago, the philosopher Judith Shklar at Harvard argued that hypocrisy is one of the ordinary vices. By mimicking virtue, Shklar pointed out, the hypocrite tacitly acknowledges and helps to maintain the moral order in public, even as he betrays it privately. Indeed, the hypocrite can even be congratulated for refusing to tolerate any outright infractions of this order. Precisely because it is so commonplace, hypocrisy rarely assumes any real political importance.
On occasion, however, the problem of hypocrisy takes on a spectacular role in politics. Now is such a time; hypocrisy is making a lot of people very angry. Today, in the United States and in western Europe, anger over hypocrisy, especially that of liberals, is driving politics. Both the Left and Right in the US and Europe mobilise support by calling attention to liberal hypocrisy. Liberals, both Left and Right allege, have ignored the economic or cultural consequences of immigration and globalisation for working-class people. To anyone who raises questions about globalisation or immigration, liberals shout accusations of bigotry and ignorance.
Critics of liberalism claim to counter its signature hypocrisy with their sincerity. If hypocrisy is bad, even fatally bad, sincerity is good. Sincerity, in this formulation, is tantamount to free and honest speech. It is possible to be sincere only when one is joyfully liberated from liberals’ supposedly stifling ‘political correctness’, a synonym for hypocrisy dredged up from what Americans call the ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s.
The reappearance of ‘political correctness’ (a strangely dated reference) as the enemy of sincerity is telling. Both terms seem a bit old-fashioned. After all, in contemporary usage, the most familiar appearance of sincerity is the formulaic ‘sincerely yours’ in correspondence. There, ‘sincerity’ implies nothing more than cool politeness and is not taken as being hypocritical.
However old-fashioned the conception of sincerity, it is crucial to today’s politics. But sincerity, importantly, is not concerned with the agreement between word and deed, or theory and practice, which determines hypocrisy. Sincerity rather depends on the relationship, the harmony between word and belief. Far more important than what one says, in other words, is whether one believes it. The former British prime minister Tony Blair has provided perhaps the first contemporary example in the West of the return of sincerity to politics. In a rambling press conference in July 2016, he defended his key role in the invasion of Iraq. As a defence, Blair invoked the genuineness of his belief, on the eve of the Iraq War, in the imminent threat he thought Saddam Hussein’s regime posed to the West. He did not rest his case on the rightness or wrongness of his views, nor on his consequent actions.
It is facile to see Blair’s emphasis on the state of his own beliefs, his quasi-religious faith, merely as a self-serving evasion.
Blair’s statement is representative of our age. Not only does it concern the historic Iraq War, it presumes throughout that when ‘facts’ are either unavailable or doubtful, sincerity reigns. Sincerity becomes more important than one’s position, more important than whether one is promoting or repudiating facts. Of course, our media-saturated, or ‘mediated’, age has not brought clarity of facts, but something closer to the opposite. All facts can now be questioned, precisely because outside such media they seem to possess no verifiable existence. Truth is therefore made in decision as a kind of wager, rather than discovered by knowledge in the form of certitude…