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Is David Letterman a Hypocrite?


I had already written the following when I read Colin Elzie’s rebuke, published late yesterday. He claims my topic selection as wandering into irrelevance. Of course, he’s right and I must apologize. But not all of us can author seminal pieces like Elzie’s Pterodactyl Time!, an exploration of dinosaurs on the LSAT, or Outback LSAT, providing completely relevant information about taking the LSAT in Australia.

Glass houses, my friend.

I want to make three responses to Mr. Elzie’s comments.

The first is a new poll that I believe Mr. Elzie will find far more relevant than my prior writings.

Second, in anticipation of the results, I’ve attached a google map with helpful information for Colin.

Last, I ask the reader to consider whether Mr. Elzie would more properly be the subject of the following post than David Letterman.

Is David Letterman a Hypocrite?

Someone is trying to blackmail David Letterman for having sex with employees.
Let’s hear it for post-industrial, Western society. Aren’t we doing well…

The facts:

Apparently, David Letterman had sexual relations with some of the women who worked for him. It’s not yet clear if he was married at the time of these affairs, but Letterman’s public apology to his wife on Monday suggests that these relationships may have overlapped with his long courtship of his wife.

Some guy who knew about these affairs decided it would be a good time to extort Letterman, and in high Godfather form, chose to leave a note in Letterman’s car saying “I know that you’ve done some terrible things.” (I’m Italian and this still strikes me as ridiculously over the top).

Letterman gave the man a fake check and later pressed charges against him. Since that time, the man has plead not guilty. Surely, priceless bits are to follow.

Since the news broke, however, a number of people have claimed that Letterman is a hypocrite. Presumably, this charge was made in light of the fact that Letterman had sex with women who’ve worked on his show (perhaps while in a relationship) and yet has made critical jokes about Bill Clinton and others for their sexual indiscretions. This got me thinking that the charge of hypocrisy is levied quite frequently but is sometimes, I suspect, misapplied.

So, what better time for some conceptual clarification?

The Definition(s) of Hypocrisy:

Most people believe that a hypocrite is someone who claims to advocate a certain principle or state of affairs but acts inconsistently. Yet some of the most credible authorities (in particular wikipedia and the noted philologist Hot-For-Words) point out that historically a hypocrite is someone who says something inconsistent with what he or she believes to be true.

According to this traditional definition, if I claim that San Jose is the capital of California when I know quite well that it’s Sacramento, I’m guilty of hypocrisy. In that sense, hypocrisy is just an instance of lying.

Whether this is or was the actual definition, most of us don’t use the word that way. Our colloquial notion of hypocrisy involves action that is inconstant with one’s proclaimed convictions.

Both the Oxford English Dictionary (membership required) and define hypocrisy in a way that seems to bring these ideas together. They define hypocrisy as a pretense of having virtuous beliefs or principles that one does not really possess, and instances of this.

The last part referring to ‘instances of this’ allows us to see the connection. Whereas the traditional definition focuses on a discrepancy between one’s belief and one’s statements, our colloquial use focuses on a discrepancy between one’s action and one’s statements. We’ve shifted from focusing on belief to action, but this is because a person’s action is being treated as a reliable indicator of his belief. Inconsistent behavior is treated as evidence that we don’t really feel the way we say we do.

In light of one’s self-proclaimed concern for the homeless, one’s inconsistent action (say the failure to donate to any charitable organizations that helps the homeless) is interpreted as evidence that one doesn’t actually care. Strictly speaking, this is a fallacious inference, as one still might care and simply be unable to act on his convictions because he is weak, poor, or irrational. But absent any reasonable explanation, the lack of effort does look inconsistent with a belief in charity.

Still, the question remains, is David Letterman a hypocrite?

The Original Definition:

With regard to the original definition, in which one explicitly avows principles he doesn’t have, Letterman doesn’t come close to qualifying as a hypocrite. Not only has he failed to avow any principles, we don’t know what he truly believes either. His jokes about Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer and others aren’t assertive statements. A joke about Clinton’s infidelity isn’t tantamount to the claim that infidelity is wrong.

Nor do these jokes necessarily imply Letterman’s own attitude. Some claim that this is because he doesn’t write his jokes. But this is beside the point. Even if he does write them, the telling of a joke does not give us insight into the comic’s actual belief. One could make a joke suggesting that Kate Moss is too thin, even if one actually believes that she isn’t thin enough. What is required for the joke to be successful is that the comic believes that the audience would agree that Kate Moss is too thin, or even that they believe that she’s generally believed to be too thin. But the comic’s own beliefs seem entirely irrelevant to the question.

Because one cannot infer anything about the beliefs of the comic from the telling of a joke, one could never discover Letterman’s beliefs about monogamy from his jokes about notoriously unfaithful public figures.

In short, we can’t show an inconsistency between Letterman’s stated views and his actual beliefs, because his jokes don’t give us insight into either. He can’t therefore have been shown to be a hypocrite in the original sense.

The Colloquial Definition:

The question remains whether David Letterman is a hypocrite according to our colloquial definition. Did he say one thing and then do another?

I want to assume that Letterman’s affairs did occur during his marriage, and that it was during this period that he made jokes about either Clinton or Spitzer, just because this would seem to make the strongest case for his hypocrisy.

If Letterman were making jokes about a public figure’s infidelity on the same day he himself was unfaithful, would this make him a hypocrite?

Despite what might be an initial inclination to say ‘yes’, I think the answer has to be ‘no’ for two different reasons.

First is the difficulty we explored earlier with inferring a comic’s beliefs from his joke. Letterman might believe that Clinton acted entirely appropriately, but still joke about it because he knows his audience believes the action was inappropriate. Because we can’t infer Letterman’s belief from his jokes, we can’t know his behavior is contrary to anything he believes. Nor do his jokes constitute assertive statements.

A second difficulty is that there might be an important distinction between the two cases. Let’s assume that when making jokes about a public figure’s infidelity, say Bill Clinton’s, Letterman believed that what Clinton did was wrong. Let’s also assume that at the same time Letterman was having an affair while he was married (though, again, this has not been established). Then we’d have Letterman’s belief that Clinton’s infidelity was wrong and, at the same time, his own unfaithful behavior. Surely, this would have to qualify as hypocritical, right?

I still think this might fall short of hypocrisy. For Letterman might hold that Clinton’s behavior is wrong not just because he was having an affair while married, but because the office Clinton held required him to adopt a more stringent level of moral commitment as our leader or perhaps because such indiscretions might place the US at a strategic disadvantage.

In short, if there were a relevant dissimilarity between Clinton’s infidelity and Letterman’s, hypocrisy might not obtain in this case either. Furthermore, since it’s Letterman’s beliefs that are at issue, he would have to believe there was no relevant dissimilarity between the cases for hypocrisy to obtain.

Though it might seem hard to think of a case that actually satisfies these requirements, they’re out there. Elliot Spitizer seems to qualify. Spitzer, as state attorney general, was outspoken about the abuse of political power and, in particular, condemned the use of prostitutes. Yet he was also a particularly active client of the Emperor’s Club prostitution ring. Because Spitzer was speaking literally (not joking) on so many occasions in which he condemned both the abuse of power and the use of prostitutes, his own behavior seems clearly inconsistent with his often expressed view. So Spitzer seems to be a hypocrite.

Can you think of others? Other than Colin Elzie, I mean.

Article by Trent Teti of Blueprint LSAT Preparation.