As soon as the story about disgraced New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman broke, each side in our grimly polarized political world began attacking the other. Gleeful Republicans pointed out that Mr. Schneiderman had campaigned for stronger laws against sexual abuse but apparently engaged in it himself. Democrats noted that the same conservatives flaying Mr. Schneiderman had often dismissed or downplayed sexual misconduct by President Donald Trump, who boasted about grabbing women’s private parts on the Billy Bush tape.
They’re both right, of course. But they’re wrong to hyperventilate about hypocrisy, which is simply part of the human condition. To some degree, we all do one thing and say another. What really counts are our actions, which always speak louder than words.
Let’s be clear: nothing — absolutely nothing — can justify the misdeeds of Mr. Schneiderman, who resigned a few hours after they came to light. According to four former partners, he hit and choked them repeatedly. He also demeaned them verbally, making vicious comments about their weight and clothing.
Meanwhile, he was cultivating a public image as a stalwart against sexual abuse. His office published a “Know Your Rights” brochure for victims of domestic violence. It sued the film company once run by Harvey Weinstein, a serial sexual predator. And Mr. Schneiderman pressed for a state law to make choking — “an intent to impede breathing” — punishable by up to a year in prison knowing it was something he apparently was guilty of.
But none of that makes what he personally did to women any worse (or, for that matter, any better). Most of all, it doesn’t take anything away from his praiseworthy efforts to fight sexual abuse in all of its forms.
Lyndon Johnson was a warrior for civil rights, but he continued to denigrate black people with the n-word and other racist slurs. Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act, yet he preyed on a 21-year-old White House intern.
And on the GOP side of the aisle, defeated Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore installed a Biblical statue outside his courthouse even though he had previously trolled shopping malls for young female flesh. Pro-life Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy sponsored bills to prohibit abortion, then encouraged his mistress to get one. And so on.
But the real question isn’t whether these people acted in accord with their favored policies. It’s about the policies themselves, which we should judge on their own merits rather than on the moral probity of their advocates.
So abortion may be a human right or — depending on your perspective — a human calamity. But Tim Murphy's actions don't affect that, one way or another. It's a red herring, a game of gotcha instead of a real argument.
Should we be surprised that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway tweeted "Gotcha," following the revelations about Eric Schneiderman? It was just a one-word message, but it spoke volumes. You are a poser, a fake, a sham. And so are your politics.
That confuses the personal and the political. Of course, Mr. Schneiderman should be held fully accountable for any sexual abuses he committed. Ditto for President Trump, who has been accused of harassment by a dozen women.
But we should evaluate them based on what they have done, not what they have said. And the fact that Eric Schneiderman has said more about this matter than Donald Trump doesn't matter in the least.
Was it hugely hypocritical for Mr. Schneiderman to decry the sexual abuse of women, then to engage in it himself? Sure. But it’s also irrelevant. All of us are hypocrites, in some fashion, insofar as our practice diverges from our principles. And it’s hypocritical to pretend otherwise.
Jonathan Zimmerman (firstname.lastname@example.org]) teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Emily Robertson, of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”