Thursday, March 15, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: The uses and misuses of hypcrisy

This wasn't meant to be hypocrites week but it's worked out that way. In that light, I'd like to take a look at a kind of argument that is peculiarly modern that uses hypocrites—that is to say it uses the hypocrisy of others—to make a point. It's not hard to come up with an example, it is a far too common move in modern argumentation, but I thought I'd use an example from James Joyce.

Here is the set up. A wild argument about Parnell has broken out during Christmas dinner at the Dedalus household. On one side are the adult males of the family who believe the church's condemnation of Parnell when his adultery became known robbed Ireland of it's great chance for freedom. On the other side is Stephen's Aunt Dante Riordan who believes the church did right in condemning immorality and if that had unfortunate political circumstances, tough. In the bit I cite here, young Stephen is thinking about the argument he has just heard:
But why then was he [Stephen's uncle] against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun and that she had come out of the convent in the Alleghanies when her brother had got money from the savages for the trinkets and the chainies. Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was protestant ...
You get a picture of Dante here that makes you want to dismiss her side of the argument.

That is, as I say, a favourite move in modern moral argument. The television show M*A*S*H pulled this trick hundreds of times (that isn't hyperbole). The solution was never that one side was shown to be right and the other side wrong but that each and every person who opposed Hawkeye on a moral point turned out to be a hypocrite.

That this is a stupid way to make moral evaluations is easily shown. Ask yourself two simple questions: 1) Do you think there were other people in Ireland who took the church's side who were not hypocrites? and 2) Do you think there were other people in Ireland who took Parnell's side who were hypocrites? And the answer is "Yes, of course there were," in both cases. That the person who preaches a moral view might be a hypocrite proves nothing at all.

The fact that someone is a hypocrite doesn't preclude the possibility of their being right and the fact that someone is a pillar of integrity doesn't preclude the possibility of their being wrong. And we might further ask, who isn't a hypocrite?

In addition to handling this sort of moral argument with suspicion, we should be doubly worried when we see this sort of thing in a work of fiction because the Author has set it up this way; James Joyce's heavy thumb is on the moral scale.

(In the case of Dante Riordan, we might also wonder that Joyce has given her the name of the medieval poet who wrote a great vision of hell and its torments. Why? Because in a section to come in that book young Stephen is going visit prostitutes and then be confronted by a Dante-esque vision of hell during a religious retreat. How is he going to get out of that one? Answer: I don't know yet as I'm at the exact half-way point of the book and the last time I read it was in high school because Sr. Dodd assigned it and I can't remember much about it now. I'll keep you posted.)

No comments:

Post a Comment