Anyone remember Ned Fulmer? Fulmer was one of the Try Guys, a quartet of fairly inoffensive comedians whose YouTube channel was in 2022 valued at $6m. But one day last year, Fulmer was unceremoniously deprived of his living. The problem was that he had pretended, in public, to be a devoted husband, but it then emerged that he’d had an affair. Scandal followed and the gang expelled him. “It was very shocking to us,” his colleagues explained, blocking him on social media as an extra precaution.
Or perhaps you remember Ellen DeGeneres, the talkshow host who urged viewers to “be kind” at the end of every show? (She’d had it printed on hats and tote bags too.) One day rumours surfaced that she was not so kind when the cameras were off – in fact, she could be “aggressive” and “mean”’ to staff, and tolerated “toxic” behaviour from her executives. The show faltered and was brought to an end.
Or how about Chrissy Teigen? It emerged two years ago that the internet personality had once sent a string of nasty messages to a 16-year-old; public condemnation followed and her sponsors fled. Teigen, Piers Morgan said, had attempted to “con the world into thinking she’s a nice person”.
Or what about Russell Brand? He hasn’t been heard of since 2008 when, amid rumours he behaved very badly towards female colleagues, he made a lewd phone call on air to Andrew Sachs, in which he…
But of course that is not the Brand story. As we know, Sachsgate did not end him, and neither did an incident a year earlier where, on air, he’d called his Radio 2 show’s newsreader “a sex bomb” and threatened to “unleash hell on [her] thighs”. And neither did long-held “open secrets” in the industry that he was a sexual predator.
Hypocrisy remains the only unforgivable sin. Even among those who can overlook and explain away every other vice
“Are you a more successful sexual predator now you don’t drink?” Morgan once asked Brand in an interview. “I like to think of myself as a conduit of natural forces …. You just have to unpick the conditions stopping women going straight to bed with you,” he replied. Brand is now facing a giant public reckoning, but only after serious allegations of rape and sexual assault have been made by two respected media organisations. For decades, Brand, who denies the claims, had been behaving in ways that would kill most other careers.
What’s the difference between public figures who get away with nothing and those who get away with everything? In that latter list we might include Louis CK, R Kelly, Andrew Tate and Donald Trump. For a long time these men weathered rumours, and indeed major scandals, that others could not. Why?
Well, that list does have something in common. Unlike the hapless DeGeneres, Fulmer or Teigen, these men didn’t attempt to con the world into thinking they were nice people. Like Brand, Louis CK was accused of sexual misconduct and made light of such behaviour in his show. Some of Tate’s online output might almost function as a how-to guide to sexual exploitation – a charge he was arrested for, but denies.
As a credo, or a persona, or just as a joke, these men told the world their philosophy and behaviour were consistent. They had no standards to fail to live up to. They were many awful things, but you could hardly call them outright hypocrites. And that is the charge that really sticks – the charge for which you don’t need impeccable sources or reams of evidence. Careers end in a flash.
‘Hypocrisy remains the only unforgivable sin,” wrote Judith Shklar in Ordinary Vices. “Even, perhaps especially, among those who can overlook and explain away every other vice.”
Hypocrisy is odious – we instinctively loathe it – no charge is as deadly. But this, Shklar wrote, is a problem, because we tend to rate it as worse than other human flaws. And when we place hypocrisy at the top of the sin list – higher, even, than cruelty – everything, from culture to politics, gets nastier.
If your own standards are the measuring stick by which you are to be judged, better to have none at all
First, it gives predators and criminals a handy loophole. What’s the best way to guard yourself from scandal, if hypocrisy is the very worst offence? Probably to become an advocate for bad behaviour. If your own standards are the measuring stick by which you are to be judged, better to have none at all.
But if only saints can stand up for what is right, and sinners eagerly push things in the other direction, society starts to degenerate. You can see this, perhaps, in the comedy scene of the 00s, and now in the corners of the internet where figures such as Brand and Tate strive to make themselves “uncancellable” by promoting schools of thought that justify their behaviour. These credos now spread into the schoolyard. You can see it, too, in politics, where amid a long tradition of unmasking “hypocritical” politicians with high-flown values, a sort of lowest-common-denominator cruelty has sprung up, manifesting as authenticity and “telling hard truths”.
There would, after all, be no scandal if Suella Braverman were revealed to be kind to asylum seekers in private. If Rishi Sunak, having set himself up against environmentalists, took a train where a private jet would do, we wouldn’t out him as a hypocrite.
And in this atmosphere the wrong people rise to the top, too. The Labour politician Emily Thornberry was once forced to resign over a tweet that seemed to mock working-class people, even though, or because, she had worked in the interests of this group. But Jacob Rees-Mogg, who poses as a contemptuous aristocrat, survived a radio interview in which he implied that those who died during the Grenfell fire had lacked common sense. Boris Johnson, of course, had no principles at all, so got away with almost everything.
It’s a strange sort of purism where we end up promoting values with which we actually disagree. No one likes a hypocrite: we’re perfectly right to despise them. But there are worse things.
• Martha Gill is an Observer columnist