Tim Lott: White lies make the world go round, for we all have secret lives

The leaked private views of world leaders are all about diplomacy, not hypocrisy
Click to follow

Back in 1984, the political theorist Judith Shklar suggested in an essay that political hypocrisy was overrated as a vice – and she deplored the fact that what seemed to matter to journalists was not the wisdom of the political issue under consideration so much as the reflexive and ritualistic exposure of inconsistency,

David Runciman made a similar case a couple of years back in his book Political Hypocrisy, arguing that it was delusory to imagine we could ever escape from hypocrisy and that we shoul, without actually embracing it, accept it as a fact of politics.

One gets the impression that the WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange and many of the newspapers who have reported the US embassy cable leaks in tones of shocked innocence don't put too much store on these arguments. The media appetite for moral outrage that displays itself when such gaps are exposed between the "official version" of events and what goes on behind closed doors proves irresistible.

But is there really such a moral gulf between what takes place in the public sphere and what we all practise in the private sphere? In our private lives, hypocrisy, however distasteful we may find it in the abstract, is actually accepted as a part of everyday discourse.

Who has not said things about their friends, children or spouses, that prove to be at variance to what you say to them personally? And these observations are not always flattering. Except for all but the very consistent and highly principled – and living with one of them must be the worst nightmare of all – we recognise that there is a difference between our private and public face. Within limits, it is only human and not especially morally corrosive. It is just the way we are.

The same applies to gossip. Ordinary people tend to pick up stories and elaborate upon them to make them more interesting, engaging or entertaining. A kind of "soft" lying or dissembling is part of our everyday discourse and nobody throws their hands up in horror at any but the most extreme or hurtful examples.

Who will tell the boss what we really think of them? Does that new dress really flatter your wife's figure? Did the gift your daughter saved up to buy you for your birthday really give you the pleasure that you showed her? The trimming of truth is simply what human beings do to survive everyday social discourse.

Is there any great difference between these elastic moral values we use in our private lives and those we see, via the WikiLeaks "scandal", being perpetrated by the powerful who claim to represent us? Yes, of course, there is a difference – but as both Shklar and Runciman might assert, the difference may not be as qualitively different as we like to think. Furthermore, such behaviour is, as it were, "only natural" – and, if not natural, then inescapable.

This is, of course, an uncomfortable thought for a journalist like myself, and one that can be shucked off with a number of convincing and, to some extent, valid counter arguments. We claim that exposing hypocrisy throws light into the dark corridors of power, or makes democracies more democratic.

But some hypocrisy – perhaps a great deal of it – is, in public life as in private life, more justified than unjustified. However, WikiLeaks has gleefully thrown everything out there, without any consideration of the harm it may or may not do. It is a textbook example of throwing shit to see what sticks to the wall (or hits the fan, if you prefer).

Of course, the idea that such information "costs lives" is routinely wheeled out by the security services whenever a matter comes into the open that they find embarrassing. It is the instinct of institutions to be secretive because it preserves their power. But that is not the only reason for such behaviour.

They are secretive, sometimes, because they have entered into an honorable agreement to communicate in confidence, or because the release of sensitive information might genuinely jeopardise public security. It is understood that hypocrisy is the best course and the agreed, if unspoken, rule of the game.

To violate this agreement – whether through negligence or wilfulness – is at best likely to deeply damage diplomatic relations and, at worst, do exactly what the security services claim it does: result in actual, physical harm to citizens. Hypocrisy here, as in politics at large, and in private life, oils the wheels of social and political intercourse.

I am no uncritical fan of hypocrisy. There is something vaguely nauseating in watching the smooth, emollient words of diplomats being contrasted with the ugly realities behind the words. And it is useful and important to know that Saudi Arabia urged the US to attack Iran, and that Silvio Berlusconi may have been taking kickbacks from Vladimir Putin.

But there has to be line somewhere, and it seems to me that WikiLeaks has crossed it, by childishly throwing all the information "out there" without scrutinising it properly. This is entertaining – but it is also irresponsible. It embraces a sort of gleeful anarchy that is partly refreshing, but also feels callow. There is something of the undergraduate prank about it. It puts the accuser above the fray, without recognising that we are all hypocrites at some level. To point out the mote in the eye of a senior diplomat is to fail to see the log in our own.

I would not say that the double faces the state finds it politic to utilise are in precisely the same moral area as a personal hypocrisy, which can concern matters of taboo and emotion rather than power and practicality. But, despite this distinction, it still seems to me that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot condemn the inconsistency between the state's private face while at the same time tolerating so liberally the Janus-like aspect of our own lives.

We all need secrets, both as individuals and public bodies. The very act of holding secrets – secret opinions, secret dislikes – implies hypocrisy. In ignoring this consideration, we transform ourselves into naughty schoolboys, gleefully rummaging around in the headmaster's cupboard. Perhaps we find a condom, or a pornographic picture, or the results to examination questions, and titter and goad, feeling that, for once, we have evened out the power relationship a little.

Much of the information leaked has little more status than everyday gossip, the sort of thing we might privately bitch about between friends. The news that Mervyn King thought George Osborne lacked gravitas because of his "high-pitched vocal delivery", or that Hillary Clinton wanted a briefing on the mental health of the Argentinian president, Cristina Kirchner, or that a Commonwealth official believed that the Prince of Wales is not respected as the Queen is, amounts to little more than private griping. Gossip is often distasteful but harmless. However, at state level, it may sour relations between certain parties for years to come, at who knows what political and economic cost. Everyday hypocrisy might have produced much more fruitful outcomes. It is the name of the game, and rules have to be observed in public as in private life.

Consistency between our private and public statements is not the be all and end all. Sometimes the ends really do justify the means – and more so in the field that we are most puritanical about – the public arena – than the area we are so forgiving of – the private one.