Stamatakis: Go on, urinate in the pool — I won’t judge

By Nick Stamatakis

Imagine your friend is irritatingly clean. She loves to squirt out hand sanitizer every time she… Imagine your friend is irritatingly clean. She loves to squirt out hand sanitizer every time she touches a doorknob  — “I don’t want to get the swine” — and squirms when anybody drinks tap water.

You find this trait of hers particularly annoying and pointless. But one day you two go to the pool and this pristine Little Miss Sunshine, happily splashing about, decides she’d rather not wait for the bathroom. A few seconds later, you realize what she has done.

Look how right this makes you! She’s been preaching about Pine-Sol, lecturing on Lysol, and sermonizing about sterilizing for years, but doesn’t even follow through herself. The fact that she can’t even abide by her own behavioral code shows that the code must not actually be correct.

But does it really? This is a real — pardon my Palinism — “gotcha” moment, an embarrassing gaffe and naked display of hypocrisy. But it doesn’t say anything about the truth regarding being clean.

After all, her reason for being so concerned with cleanliness has not changed. All her aesthetic and health motivations are still perfectly valid. She might have some moral faults, she may place her own bodily urges above her idealized world view, but her ideas still have the same logic behind them.

This is the problem that occurs when everybody focuses on hypocrisy as the crown jewel of political scandal. It might feel validating but most often ends in a spiral of personal attacks. If public policy is supposed to be about ideas and not people, pointing out personal hypocrisy doesn’t really prove anything except that the person is, well, hypocritical.

When Al Gore flies a private jet to a global warming conference, it does not make an actual statement about climate change. It might suggest that Al Gore is hypocritical, maybe even invalidate his suggestions, but it changes no key facts. The science behind what he says does not change. But his opponents use his flying as evidence against his agenda. And when Rush Limbaugh gets arrested for drug possession, it does not make a statement about drug policy. His reasons for supporting harsh drug penalties are still exactly the same.

A recent article in Psychological Science suggests that there are even psychological reasons for hypocrisy amongst the political class. Researchers used memory recall to get participants into one of two mental states: one in which they viewed themselves as either powerful or superior and another in which they felt powerless and somehow unimportant.

The powerful, especially those who felt their power was legitimate, set high standards for good behavior, but felt very little inclination to actually listen to their own advice. People in the powerful mindset were more likely to say it was OK for them to use a stolen bike or neglect income on their tax returns, but that it wasn’t OK for everybody else.

When you win an election, which is sometimes the adult version of a high school student council popularity contest, or have high ratings or just feel morally superior, you are in that powerful mindset. Senators start committing tax fraud while preaching about the virtue of paying taxes, etc.

All this is just human nature. That doesn’t mean it is OK, but people should stop the displays of righteous anger when they catch somebody in the act. These personal failings have nothing to do with policy, and are things that just happen. Vote them out, dislike them on a personal level, but don’t use their hypocrisy to shape policy or try to prove that your idea is better.

So limousine liberals and welfare conservatives, your lifestyles don’t necessarily invalidate your ideas.

I’ll listen to what you have to say, but just be aware of what you’re representing.

And if you want to urinate in a pool (1 in 5 Americans do, according to LiveScience), I won’t think any less of your actual ideas about cleanliness. I’ll just think you’re gross.