Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Red, gold and green

David Cameron: active hypocrite or passive hypocrite? Or both?

Jim has an excellent post up discussing Tory Boy's not-quite-admission to a dope-smoking past. Clearly Cameron's a hypocrite, in the sense that he's conformed to other people's standards while covering up his past transgressions. But, Jim argues, that only accounts for passive hypocrisy; what's really objectionable about Cameron is that he's an active hypocrite, who advocates standards for other people which he couldn't meet himself.

This is a useful distinction: passive and active hypocrites are very different creatures. A passive hypocrite is simply someone who fails, sometimes, to live up to the standards he or she publicly advocates. If we share those standards we may find fault, but we're more likely to sympathise, particularly given that we're human ourselves. If we don't share those standards, the worst we're likely to feel is indifferent. Indeed, passive hypocrisy can be a positively good thing if it helps to erode bad and destructive standards. You can even think of it as a tactical move, temporary reticence: I never thought I'd vote for a dope-smoker, but seeing as it's that nice Mr Cameron...

Active hypocrisy, on the other hand, can only be bad news. I don't want someone who's failing to live up to standards I share to police those standards - they're not likely to do the job very well, for one thing. Again, perhaps the reason they're not living up to those standards is that the standards need revising - they may be standards which humans can't live up to. Passive hypocrisy might not make it any easier to make that discovery, but active hypocrisy - denouncing other people's shortfalls while concealing your own - actually makes it harder. In the case of standards I don't share, active hypocrisy is even worse - if you can't even live up to them yourself, why impose them on other people?

I'd got this far in my thinking about Cameron - which was broadly in alignment with Jim's - when a colleague asked an unexpected question: What if he'd been a shoplifter? What if the criminal escapades Cameron had concealed, in passive-hypocrite mode, had involved theft rather than dope smoking? There are two questions here: would we still regard him as an active hypocrite for denouncing teenage shoplifters? And, relatedly, would anybody much care?

I think the answer to both questions lies in an unexamined assumption about drug use, which is shared by many people on both sides of the debate. It was summed up by one of the more crazed letters printed in Metro, on one of the two or three days when the story was news. I forget the details, but the message was that Cameron could never be trusted on anything ever again - and not because he'd covered his past up, but because he'd been a "druggie".

Drugs are different. Thieving is something you do; a druggie is something you are. Or rather, it's something you become when you start using drugs - and never cease to be thereafter. Once your mind's been warped by drugs you can never go back; you'll always be confused, unreliable, self-indulgent, half-crazed and essentially a bad person.

This is presumably why it was headline news. What's interesting is just how few people would actually put their name to this kind of attitude: John Reid certainly wouldn't, and all the vox pops I saw were equally relaxed about the whole thing. The news media seemed more upset about the whole thing than anyone else in the country (and speaking of hypocrisy...). Presumably the calculation was that the story still had the potential to be scandalous, even though most people didn't give a damn, because those people who do care about it care a great deal. It's a clear case of valuing beliefs, not because of their content, because they're strongly held - and it shows what a bad idea that is.

(Incidentally, I think the outrage expressed by some advocates of illegal pharmaceuticals springs from a very similar outlook to that of our 'druggie' friend, albeit with a more positive version. You can steal and then not be a thief, you can start fights on a Friday night and then not be a brawler, but you can't use drugs and then not be a user: you can never go back. For drug criminalisers and advocates alike, Cameron isn't denouncing an activity he once indulged in and now wishes he hadn't: he's denouncing a permanent fact about himself.)

So, passive hypocrisy's not such a bad thing - it's pretty much part of being human. The active hypocrisy charge is tougher, but Cameron could dodge it by making it clear that he doesn't regard drug use as something that changes the user forever. It was illegal, he tried it, bad idea, it should stay illegal, end of story. (Yes, it would probably be better all round if he came out for legalisation - it would certainly be more interesting - but I don't think even Cameron is going to push the Tories that far.) This would be a particularly good strategy in view of the allegations of cocaine use which have stuck to Cameron since his PR days. Admitting to teenage cannabis use would make it all the easier to brazenly deny adult cocaine use. This might get Cameron into the realms of flat-out lying rather than mere hypocrisy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - as the relative popularity of Blair and Brown makes clear, the public prefers a liar to a hypocrite. (This comparison courtesy of David Runciman.)

So why hasn't he done this? Why does he persist in dodging the question and waiting for the issue to blow over? (Oh, it has. I've been a long time writing this post...) The answer, I think, lies in another odd feature of the drug laws, or the mentality underlying them. Since the days when constables of the Watch kept a look out for breaches of the King's peace, there has always been something chancy about public, social crimes: to be prosecuted depends on a three-way conjunction of offender, victim and guardian of the law. If you get nabbed while you've got your hand in the till, fair enough, but if not... well, the police can't be everywhere. (This is one of the reasons why the level of crime reported in victim surveys is so much higher than the level recorded in police figures.) And I think our way of thinking about crimes like this incorporates this assumption. We might want the police to be more effective in preventing burglary, but nobody thinks they're ever going to prevent it entirely. (The police themselves certainly don't - they're the first to recommend target-hardening and victim-centred crime prevention.) There's an acceptable level of burglary, theft, taking and driving away - or at least a level which we accept is never going to go away.

Drugs are different. To say that a substance is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act is to say that the government wants it not to be used at all: the underlying mentality is one of prohibition. Some theft will always go on, and some will always go unpunished; even for the hardest law-and-order zealot there's a margin of resigned tolerance there. In the minds of drugs prohibitionists, there is no margin of tolerance for drug use: ideally the law would ensure that no drug use went on, and failing that it would ensure that no drug use went unpunished.

This is the real problem for Cameron. It's not that he's a druggie at heart and can't be trusted - or that he once turned on and shouldn't now denounce his brothers in the herb. (As I've said, I think these attitudes are essentially mirror images of each other, and I don't really like either of them.) The problem is that every drugs law is a zero-tolerance drugs law. For a politician, to admit to teenage shoplifting is to say I did it and I shouldn't have, but to admit to teenage dope-smoking is to say I got away with it and I shouldn't have. Which would leave Cameron with only two options. One would be public penitence - and I'm sure the Home Office could find a course for him, something to address drug-related offending behaviour. The other would be to come out and say that, yes, he got away with it and, damn it, people like him actually should get away with it. I suspect that if Cameron said that he'd be neither lying nor hypocritical.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I think part of my resistance to Jim's thought is because - for whatever reason: maybe because I've never had my collar felt, and because, all things considered, the chances of a respectable white middle-class man having his collar felt are fairly minimal, if I were to indulge - I tend to think of drug prohibitions as exactly like shop-lifting in this respect: if you get caught, it's fair enough, but if you don't, equally fair enough.

23/2/07 15:22  
Anonymous Miles said...

Cameron may be fuzzy on dope but he's hard-line on workers' rights.
Click on my name for details.

22/3/07 23:08  

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