Ransoms, hypocrisy, and bourgeois virtues

I saw a provocative article, “The Case for Paying Ransoms”, that argued that noted that European hostages of terrorist groups, unlike American and British hostages, tend to be returned alive, thanks to European governments paying ransoms. The US and UK governments, however, have a public policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

It appears that “governments like the Spanish, the French, and the Italian, have simply found other, more clandestine and covert ways of making such payments, through sudden increases in aid budgets and the like. The next move these governments make is simply to deny that such payments have been made.”

So this brings up a dilemma (which of course comes up in action films all the time):

Is it better to (a) remain morally consistent, refuse negotiation and ransom payment to an allegedly evil organization, but watch your citizens get beheaded? Or (b) sign up to a principled agreement not to negotiate with "terrorists," but then negotiate nonetheless, pay a large amount of money to release the citizens of your country, and simply deny the fact publicly?

In praise of hypocrisy?

The article argued for the second choice, which is to be hypocritical and deny negotiation while actually engaging it: “The effectiveness of the strategy depends on the fact that it is not openly acknowledged, and indeed that it is repeatedly repudiated in official statements and in international agreements by the governments in question.”

When reading this, I was not particularly shocked, because hypocrisy is everywhere and is quite official. In fact, almost all American news and political discourse revolves around hypocrisy. This is apparent when it comes to sex scandals, corporate payola, NSA domestic surveillance, complaints about government spending, railing against privatization of education while sending one’s own children to private schools, and so on. I get the impression that Americans give much more priority to the appearance of “moral outrage” than other people in the world. Nobody wants to be pointed out as a hypocrite, it seems.

The trouble is that hypocrisy is arguably the single most important bourgeois “virtue”, the collective decision to look the other way when confronted with something disturbing, to make a euphemism of it if it is seen at all. The “liberal”, tolerant society depends to a great deal on hypocrisy. This is how “tolerance” works: claiming to believe one thing while not acting entirely consistently with that claim. For example, religious tolerance was hard won: remember when Catholicism were considered anti-American by many? Was the solution really that Protestants decided Catholicism was OK after all? In part, perhaps, but also in part a result of hypocrisy. Remember when Mel Gibson said his (then) wife was doomed to go to hell?

A certain level of hypocrisy seems necessary for a liberal society. Many people who claim to believe abortion is baby murder tend to still be OK eating at a restaurant owned by someone who believes otherwise. Many “progressive” programmers seem to have no problem with buying Apple products despite suspect sweatshop labor practices at Foxconn. And so forth: in fact, capitalism itself is reliant on hypocrisy to stay alive. If people bought and sold mostly with their supposed moral conscience rather than with their wallets, markets would fall apart. Overall, nobody cares whether the gas station owner is doing drugs, beating his wife, or hates their ethnicity.

Is there an alternative to hypocrisy that doesn’t just lead back to all-out wars among every possible faction believing in their principles so strongly that they are willing to die and kill for them? I don’t know. I just know that on some uncomfortable level, complaining about hypocrisy is the essence of hypocrisy itself. This may just be how human beings have to operate. But we’re not supposed to openly admit that, are we? It would be like going to your dear friend’s parents’ home for dinner and then screaming at them for being animal killers for serving meat if you’re an ethical vegetarian. That would be such bad manners.

How do you feel about hypocrisy? Do you acknowledge its social value? Do you admit to it yourself? Do you call out those you consider hypocrites?

(Update of 2014-11-19)

Here is a critique of the original article.

(Update of 2014-12-05)

On a related topic, here is an interesting critique of “human rights” by Eric Posner.

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