Saturday, June 30, 2012

Uncomfortable thoughts about being a hypocrite

For years now I’ve been giving my brother a hard time for never buying music, movies or ebooks. He pirates them all. My argument has always been that if you enjoy the music that someone has invested time and effort in making, if you spend a couple of days reading a book then the least you can do is give the musicians and authors their fair share. The standard response has always been to call me a hypocrite because, although I buy a lot CDs and books, I also pirate music and movies. This is not an entirely unfair criticism, I just don’t think it’s as black and white as that. It’s not either you pirate everything or you pirate nothing. It’s not about maintaining purity, about thinking that the choice is between living exactly by an ideal or assuming that you can change nothing. This mindset that allows us to on the one hand complain about the fact that TV, newspapers and popular culture is crap and at the same time not realize that we are all part of shaping our surroundings is at the crux of a lot of our problems.

I thought of this after I read this response to this blogpost, where an NPR intern details how she never bought more than 15 CDs, not seeing the irony that she is undermining the very industry she wants to work in. Reading this made me realize that we maintain a similar hypocrisy about many things we criticize.

Many bemoan the demise of the independent stores in town centers. The kind of stores where you actually establish a relationship with the people working there, they know your name and they know what you like. Yet, we cannot pin the blame for their disappearance on the big box retailers and the national chain stores alone. It is us, who prefer the convenience of 24/7 shopping and saving a couple of bucks that is driving these small retailers to close their doors. If are not willing to spend a little more or be OK with not being able to shop at 9 in the evening, then we have no right to complain that the stores we go to are impersonal and staffed by people that care nothing about us.

This doesn’t mean that we can never order from Amazon but rather that we should stop expecting to get Amazon prices for everything we want. If there’s a Starbucks and an independent coffee shop on your block then avoid Starbucks. When you need some paint go to a local hardware store instead of home depot. Understand that if you want your neighborhood to look different then you need to put your money where your mouth is.

This is true for many of the choices we make.  We can complain loudly about the quality of food but at the same are not willing to pay the premium for buying from small farmers. We are upset with our lousy politicians but how many of you have written or called your representative to share your opinion about something you care about? When was the last time you demonstrated or volunteered for something? We’re concerned about the environment but the majority of people can’t give up their addiction to their car or put up with the “inconvenience” of public transport.

In short, my brother is right. We are all hypocrites. But, if we now resign ourselves to our hypocrisies and as a result only double down on behavior we know to be self defeating then we waste an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. The uncomfortable feeling when you realize you may talk the talk, but you are not exactly walking the walk is best seen as invitation to examine your actions and motivations. Otherwise it only leaves us feeling embarrassed.

Many social justice protesters in the west espouse a fairer distribution of resources in their countries. They protest the unfair hoarding of money and influence by the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Were you to extend this demand to it’s logical and global conclusion, then those same people in rich western countries, the global 1%,  should also agree to a fairer distribution of global resources for everyone else. This would mean a lowering of living standards in the first world in order to improve living standards in the third world. I’m not sure how many of the people protesting in New York, Tel Aviv, Madrid and Athens would agree to this (yours truly included).

Does this hypocrisy of ours mean that we shouldn’t seek greater social justice in our respective communities? Certainly not. What’s more, it is realizations like these that allow us to think beyond our comfort zones, our ideological bubbles, our truisms and maybe, just maybe learn something new.


  1. The problem here - on many of these levels - is that we (well, I) feel powerless to bring about change. While I may put my money where my mouth is with respect to local shops, it makes no difference unless everyone else does too. The issue is worse on the environment, and global equality.

    I run a car, a big gas guzzler, which I feel I need to support the lifestyle of my family. I still support fuel price rises and other policies which discourage the behaviour I exhibit - does that make me a hypocrite? More like a smoker supporting smoking cessation policies, I think.

    As for the global redistribution of wealth, I would support that too, but I'm not going to do so by sending my money to India. That's a drop in the ocean, but I will support policies that cause the tide to turn.

    But, as you say, I do little and less when it comes to bringing about the policies I believe in - generally just pontificating in the kitchen or occasionally on facebook. So maybe I am hypocritical, and maybe I will start writing letters.

  2. Tony, I had to think about this for a while before responding. I think all of us miss an opportunity to exercise our influence because we have become convinced that change only comes through dramatic acts. Watching TV teaches us that change is cathartic and not gradual. I have come to believe that the opposite is true.

    The mess we find ourselves in is the result of determined effort by the proponents of free market liberalism and corporate interests over the space of decades. Reversing this trend will take just as long and can only be achieved through countless acts of resistance to the status quo.

    I do not buy into the idea that shorter showers do not make a difference. It is by slowly changing our own behavior, by growing our comfort in our new behaviour so that we tell our friends about it and thus influence them that change will come.

    It is by recognizing our frailties, be they the gas guzzler we drive or the shitty food we eat, that we can start to address them. If we wait for everyone to join in simultaneously changing our behavior, then the status quo will persist.

    It is only through the small acts we commit daily that we change our ingrained patterns of behavior.