- Date published:
7:30 am, July 8th, 2017 - 17 comments
Categories: climate change, Deep stuff, Dirty Politics, global warming, Propaganda, spin - Tags: guardian, hypocrisy, lies, long read, psyc101
There’s a very interesting long read in The Guardian on the dangerous “weaponising” of cynicism by climate change deniers. It’s a worrying but insightful piece, well worth your time. I have some issues with aspects of the framing – it seems to give too much credence to “political realities” and not enough to physical realities. There are two sides to the political debate, but only one to the facts and their consequences.
Anyway. One of the most interesting sections was a discussion of the way that voters are more forgiving of lies than hypocrisy:
The people who made the case that smoking causes cancer were not generally thought of as hypocrites. It’s true that some of them still smoked, even after they knew the dangers. But there were far more smokers inside the tobacco industry, where being seen with a cigarette in hand was positively encouraged as a signal that there was nothing to worry about.
Climate science is different. Ever since it became a political issue, it has been bedevilled by accusations of hypocrisy. The internet is awash with tales of Al Gore and his monstrous double standards: he racks up enormous air-conditioning bills in his multiple homes; he leaves his private jet idling on the runway as he spreads the message that flying is wrong; he sells his television network for megabucks to al-Jazeera, where the money to buy it comes from Qatari oil. In the words of the National Review in 2016: “The [climate] hysterics are hypocrites. It’s austerity for thee but not for me as they jet around the world to speak to adoring audiences about the need for sacrifice.” Until wealthy liberal New Yorkers start selling up their Manhattan real estate and moving to higher ground, the cynics say, there’s really nothing to worry about.
Recent research by a group of psychologists shows why this is such a problem: we dislike hypocrites because we hate they way they seem to be signalling their superior virtue. Take two kinds of claims about environmental activism. Under one set of conditions, a speaker claims to recycle his rubbish, after which it is revealed that he does no such thing. Under the other, a speaker tell his listeners they should recycle their rubbish, after which it is revealed that he does not do it himself. The first is a liar. The second is a hypocrite, but not a liar, since what he says is still true (people should recycle their rubbish). Most people respond with relative equanimity to the lie. But they loathe the hypocrisy, because the hypocrite seems to be patronising them.
This is terrible news for environmentalism. Doctors who smoke are not really patronising their patients: if anything, they are revealing sympathetic human weakness. But environmental activists who leave the engine running are easily portrayed as dreadful elitists: they think the rules don’t apply to them. The populist rabble-rousers of the right have exploited this fact mercilessly. Hypocrisy is hard to avoid when it comes to the politics of climate change, since it is a collective-action problem. It’s far from clear what difference any individual action will make. What matters is what we do together. This makes it practically impossible for any one individual to match words to deeds. Yet the failure to do so provides the perfect stick for the climate cynics to beat their opponents with.
If we dislike hypocrisy more than we dislike lying, then it is not just a problem for climate politics. It is a problem for democracy. It gives the liars their chance. During the presidential campaign, it was widely hoped that Trump’s relentless record of untruths would be his undoing. In the New York Times, David Leonhardt painstakingly listed the 26 lies Trump told in the first presidential debate, which ought to have been enough for anyone. But Trump has always been careful not to come across as the wrong sort of hypocrite: the kind who seems to be talking down to people. Hillary Clinton was not so careful. And when the voters get to choose between the two, the hypocrite loses to the liar.
I don’t think that our recent Nat PMs and dirty politics bloggers had any formal understanding of this effect, but I think they certainly had an intuitive one. It does seem to contribute a useful perspective on what has been going on in NZ politics these last few years.