We have currently in the world around us many rather nakedly overt examples of pretty intense hypocrisy, especially in the political spheres. Exacerbating the inherent frustration such displays cause is the fact that pointing out the seemingly obvious hypocrisy seems to have virtually no impact or effect. The frustration thus grows into an infuriated exasperation. The hypocrisy is blatantly obvious? Don’t they care!?
The important thing to understand is that someone who has fixated to the point of extremism will not see themselves as being hypocritical, at least not in any way which truly matters. For them the means they use to achieve their objectives hold no significant importance as long as they work. The means don’t matter, only the ends.
Extremism, regardless of the issue or topic of focus operates by reshaping a person’s mind and perceptions in two primary ways. It zealously narrows the focus of all thought and attention to the point of rabid fixation on singular and specific goals. It does this to the exclusion, and more devastatingly the villainization, of any other issues or considerations. Not only are their priorities the only ones which matter but all other attitudes and perspectives are evil and dangerous. This frothing tribalistic fixation then leads to the other distortion, that methods and means are irrelevant. Only achieving the goal matters.
We don’t have to look too hard or far through history to find multitudinous examples of people feeling fully justified in employing absolutely abhorrent means because they are convinced their goal is so overwhelmingly important it is far beyond such petty considerations.
At the small level we see it in the driver who grows enraged at other drivers for getting in their way but expects full license to move around as they choose because other people’s schedules and destinations could not possibly be as important as their own. At the more serious level we see it in the denials, justifications, and victim blaming employed by perpetrators of sexual assault who feel their immediate sexual gratification takes precedence over all other considerations. And at the more horrific level we see it in those who willfully kill countless people in acts of violent terrorism because they feel other people’s lives are not nearly as important as their goal or message.
It is natural to see our own interests and priorities as most important. We only live in our own minds, we only experience our own lives. The things which are important to us will always matter more to us than they will to anyone else. But once the reckless blinders of extremism set in it is not simply that our interests are more important we start to see all other interests as no longer mattering at all. To extremists all other interests, perspectives, considerations, means, and all other people do not matter at all. Only their goals matter.
One of the clearest and currently contentious mainstream examples of extremism at work is the battle over Supreme Court nominations in the US. Obviously those on either the left or right would rather see the court leaning predominantly in their direction but Sen. Mitch McConnell and his colleagues have taken this to the point of extremism. There are certainly some specific issues underlying their drive to tilt the court as steeply to the hard right as possible but it is clear the goal of an overwhelmingly conservative Supreme Court has become an extremist position for them.
Yes, to declare it unacceptable and unconstitutional to make significant judicial appointments during an election year as grounds for refusing to allow any nomination to the Supreme Court, or pretty much any other federal bench, in 2016 only to then make every possible effort to fill a Supreme Court seat barely a month before a Presidential election four years later is on its face astronomically hypocritical. But only if you are looking at their actions, at the means.
In their eyes they are still on the same mission, the performative outrage over the alleged inappropriateness of appointing a new Supreme Court Justice during an election year was merely a tool of the moment. They were in a position to block any such appointments and it served as their excuse to make use of those powers. It worked in that particular moment which was all that mattered because the end result was all that mattered, the goal of a more heavily conservative Supreme Court.
No, they were not instituting a rule meant to stand fixed and resolute henceforth in any and all situations whether that was part of the justifying rhetoric or not. Yes, if the other party had attempted anything of a similar nature they would have roared about it being an unconstitutional outrage. In that case, in their eyes, it would have been. Not because of anything about the means being used but because it ran contrary to the only thing which mattered to them, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
Hypocrisy is somewhat of an intrinsic danger in the political sphere because a key feature of being a part of it requires one to persuade voters to choose them for the position. The simplest route to winning people over in the short term is to say things they want to hear which, obviously, can lead to far more pandering than resolutely standing firm on one’s personal principles.
The optimistic view of human nature would like to believe that inconsistencies over time would reveal and root out hypocrisy since it is a clear indication someone is dishonest and therefore far from trustworthy. The trouble is we humans are highly emotional creatures and it is rather astounding how foggy and indistinct the past can get when someone is appealing to our current angers or fears of the moment. Couple that with our powerful preference for short-term instant solutions, something which the entire lottery industry depends and thrives on, and you have an environment which allows, readily rewards, and thus perpetuates strategically effective hypocrisy.
When hypocrisy is permitted and accepted extremism is essentially handed a blank check to operate and trying to combat it can feel like an infuriating impossibility. In part because blatant hypocrisy seems to be such an obvious weakness to exploit for an easy victory but all attempts to confront it wind up going around and around in maddening and exhausting circles tangled up in arguments which enthusiastically refuse to make any sense.
The hypocrisy might be obvious but it is also a red herring. The appropriateness or ‘rightness’ of someone’s actions only carry weight if they feel their actions or means matter. If they have reached a point of extremism wherein the only facet of means and methods they see as important is whether or not they ‘win’ they will feel absolutely no remorse or deterrence over any hypocrisy you might illustrate.
They may dismissively deny it, simply deflect into absurdity, or they may even acknowledge the hypocrisy with a shrug and a smirk. For example, only a couple of years after declaring election year Supreme Court nominations an immoral outrage, answering a reporter’s hypothetical question about a Supreme Court seat opening in 2020 with a chuckle and “We’d fill it” before smirking while taking a sip of water.
Extremism can be an immensely difficult thing to confront and combat. If someone has radicalized to the point of not caring about anything other than achieving their goal, harm or consequences be damned, they cannot be negotiated or reasoned with. If they have gone that far down the rabbit hole confronting and debating their motivations and perceptions is almost always all but useless. Glaring hypocrisy can be an enraging and tempting target but we have to bear in mind, if we are dealing with an extremist we are the only ones who care about the methods they are using.
There will be times when we are not able to get those who do harm to see the error of their ways. Sometimes stopping their harmful and destructive behavior has to be enough.