A quick note on what political hypocrisy means.
One of the things people on the political Left and those with strong ethical beliefs often get accused of is hypocrisy. The reason for this is that we live in a very exclusive, unfair and corrupt world, and criticising that as the Left do usually means criticising something that you are complicit in causing. For example, I may criticise the existence of poverty in this country, but that might make me look like a hypocrite because I come from a background that appears to benefit from the system that created that poverty. This is particularly obvious with high profile journalists and celebrities, and a very prevalent figure here is Russell Brand; Brand gets accused of hypocrisy every five minutes because he is rich and influential and wants to help the poor, bring down dominant power structures and create a more open and inclusive society. Is that hypocrisy?
Here is the truth of the matter: we are all constituent parts of society; society at the moment is to varying degrees exclusive, sexist, snobbish and racist, exacerbating issues of poverty, health and the destruction of the planet; therefore, we are all in some way complicit in this.
Right now, in fact, I am technically being complicit in the evil I claim to be opposed to, because I am typing this on an Apple computer. Apple are responsible for some of the worst multinational wage slavery in the world. Substances like coltan, columbite and tantalum, which are necessary for the making of iphones, are mined by children as young as 13 in and around the Congo. These children are effectively enslaved by the Mai Mai militia and Congolese armed forces, and work for as little as $2 a day in mines where they routinely suffocate or die from either cave-ins or sheer exhaustion. The materials will then be shipped to plants run by companies like GRFP Electronics, Foxconn and Flextronics, all of which have mandatory pregnancy tests for their female staff and enforce 60 hour weeks. The Foxconn plant in Shenzhen in China, for example, has been described as a ‘labor camp’. Students are worked up to 3 times over the legal overtime limit of 36 hours a month, are direly underpaid, and receive no compensation for injuries or illness. In 2010, 17 workers attempted suicide by jumping off the roof of the building, and 14 succeeded. In response to this, the company placed suicide nets around the building, and forced the workers into agreements that stated their families could not sue in the event of death. The products are then shipped around the world and marketed by store employees who are often on poverty wages, including in America and Europe.
And yet here I am writing a political article about the evils of capitalism on my Apple computer, with my iphone by my side, in a house with electricity supplied by companies who are squeezing the poorest in our society, with food produced most likely from questionable sources, and in clothes that were equally likely made in a sweatshop. So, surely I am an appalling, grotesque, idiotic, egotistical hypocrite who really ought to just shut up?
Well, I have two options, as do you. You can either try to have these things and change how we receive them, or you can have these things and stay wilfully ignorant. The point is not to not have things: the point is to have them in the best way possible.
So when I am in the supermarket, I want to be able to buy a pint of milk without the farmers producing it being underpaid. I want to be able to use a smartphone without having to worry about the suffering that has gone into producing it. I want to be able to use paper, eat eggs, drink coffee and use electricity without the implications of rainforest destruction, animal suffering, poverty wages and climate change. We should not try to starve ourselves, but try and find the balance that makes all things free of suffering and destruction.
If it is hypocritical of me to buy that pint of milk that leaves a farmer underpaid and to criticise that fact, then that is a bullet that needs to be bitten. When I criticise these things, I am not speaking as a member of a class, gender, ethnicity or nationality: I am always speaking as a living thing, trying to care for other living things. In order to make the world a more inclusive, more caring and therefore happier place, we must address it objectively, and forget our ties to the abstract social constructions of identity. The object is not to separate and isolate ourselves, but to integrate and improve what already exists.
Consider also the flipside of the argument. We currently live in a marketised and highly exploitative society, and here I am wearing trainers made in a sweatshop arguing that this shouldn’t be the case – but imagine for a moment that we live in an entirely de-marketised society. You live in a village community in which everything you wear has been made by your parents, and all food is grown by the villagers. You strongly believe that we should be highly marketised, and everything should be made in über-commercial fashion. ‘You hypocrite!’ everyone would say to you. ‘You think all our clothes should be made in factories, and yet there you are wearing shoes made by your father and a shirt made by your mother! You think all our food should be produced by commercial farmers, but everything you eat has been made here in the village! You are a hypocrite, because you are not practising what you preach.’ You are part of the world you want to change, and there is no escape from it until that change comes about.
It is no use pointing the finger at individuals for the apparent contradictions in their situation. I may go to a Russell Group university and yet be a lentil-eating, tree-hugging, Green Party-voting, hippy vegetarian protester, but it would be only be hypocritical if in reality I defended the exclusivity of privilege, which I categorically do not. We all agree that the things I have listed here are very real problems, so to attack individuals for perceived hypocrisy is not only preventing change, it is distracting us from the real issues.
The community must be inclusive, not exclusive; products must be available, not unavailable; everyone should be happy, not unhappy. Attacking individuals is fatuous and beside the point. We are all living in a corrupt world, but some of us are trying to do something about it.
(On a side note, writing this has reminded me of being in a politics lesson at school and my somewhat right-wing teacher describing Guardian readers as ‘lentil-eating, tree-hugging hippies’, and I found it funny. It’s funnier now though, because I am one.)
Sources for facts on Apple: