A blog comment I ran across last week suggested that “hypocrite” is just about the worst epithet that can be applied to a person. I do not agree. Not at all. It seems to me that hypocrisy has a useful and respectable place in our society and that it has been unfairly maligned over the centuries.
Let’s start by taking a moment to examine the meaning and etymology of the word “hypocrite.” Much as I esteem the opinion of the Oxford English Dictionary, I am unable to tell you how they weigh in on the issue, as the online version is behind a paywall and my unemployed ass cannot afford the $995 cost of the 20-volume print edition or even the $400 cost of the compact CD. Making use of the tools that I do have available, dictionary.com cites the origin of the English word “hypocrite” as the ancient Greek hypokrites, meaning “a stage actor, hence one who pretends to be what he is not.”
The original Greek appears to indicate that, at some level, hypocrisy was a socially acceptable construct. Ancient Greek audiences understood perfectly well that the onstage histrionics they were witnessing were the products of talented actors who were not actually being murdered and dismembered before their very eyes. This is often referred to as “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Once we leave the stage, however, society has always had a much more difficult time accepting one who “pretends to be what he is not.” Merriam-webster.com defines a hypocrite as “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.” In modern times, the epithet “two-faced” has been applied to such an individual, but the revulsion visited upon hypocrites goes back centuries. Arguably, the epitome of the public dissing of hypocrites was meted out by Jesus. Among the best known statements about hypocrisy is in Matthew 23:14 (KJV), “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.”
Despite the bad name given to hypocrisy in the New Testament, I submit to you that being a hypocrite was likely quite practical 2,000 years ago and is certainly so in our modern world of the 21st century.
1. We grew up with hypocrisy. Most of us were introduced to the concept of hypocrisy at an early age, long before the word entered our nascent vocabularies. Either by inference or (as in the case of my own parents) literally, our folks would tell us “Do as I say, not as I do!” If you think about it, this makes sense. All parents have hopes and dreams that their children will do better than they themselves did. As parents, we have bad habits that we do not wish our children to emulate. Of course, children are strongly influenced by the actions of their parents, which is why many fathers quit smoking or drinking or swearing when they learn that a little one is on the way. When we are unable, for whatever reason, to forsake our evil ways, the backup plan has always been to tell the kids to “pay no attention to the man in the mask.” Hypocrisy: It’s how we seek to improve the next generation.
2. Hypocrisy as a coping mechanism. A famous quote from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald posits that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” We may, for example, simultaneously entertain the ideas that “drinking alcohol impairs my ability to function” and “I need a drink to get through the day.” (In my own case, I suppose I should substitute ice cream and potato chips.) One may dispute the accuracy of Fitzgerald’s assertion about intelligence, but acting against what we know to be our own best interest is a form of hypocrisy that is a valid coping strategy used to allow us to keep going (and to keep from going crazy) in the face of life’s daily contradictions.
3. Hypocrisy is a reasonable response to society’s persistence in judging us. Back in the years when I worked in the court system, I would regularly hear criminal defendants bemoaning the law’s condemnation of conduct that they found perfectly acceptable. Some of this is decidedly solipsistic in nature, but to a great extent, this sentiment is the product of conflicting cultural norms. As the social workers and probation officers know all too well, the guy in the orange jumpsuit will likely think nothing of committing assault and battery if such conduct is a daily occurrence in his neighborhood, and particularly if he witnessed and/or participated in it as a child and adolescent. “I’m being judged unfairly!” is the prisoner’s mournful moan.
How does this relate to hypocrisy? Most of us attempt to stay on the right side of the law in order to stay out of jail, but things change considerably when it comes to matters of morality. This may seem only marginally relevant today, but in times of restrictive social norms, we may seek to avoid the judgment of society by publicly spouting the party line while merrily pursuing our own agendas in private. An example I mentioned in a post earlier this week is that many of us kept our criticisms of the government to ourselves in the 1950s to avoid social approbation that could include becoming unemployed and being run out of town. Similarly, for years most gays remained “in the closet,” some even going as far as entering hetero marriages, in order to avoid being judged harshly by those around them. So you can see that saying one thing and doing another is a reasonable response (“I have to live in this town!”) to persistent judgment by a society cherishing norms that directly contradict one’s own. Those who hang out in the third standard deviation pretty much have the choice of being hypocrites or adjusting their behavior to conform with cultural norms. Those who are unable to embrace either approach often find themselves in those orange jumpsuits, or arguably worse, in padded cells.
I have often pondered that much hypocrisy, as well as outright law-breaking, could be avoided if people would relocate to parts of the world in which social norms are better aligned with their predilections. We may be horrified at, and quick to condemn, practices such as the use of hard drugs, allowing minors to consume alcohol or eating the meat of cats and dogs, but there are many areas of the world in which these are not the cultural taboos as they represent in North America. Those who reside here but find it inconvenient to pick up stakes for an intercontinental move to a more compatible social environment often engage in culturally prohibited practices in private while, in public, pretending the horror that our society expects of them. And let us not forget that many throughout history have found becoming hypocrites essential in order to practice their religions while avoiding death at the hands of an intolerant majority.
Rather than reviling the hypocrite, perhaps we should consider that none of us is perfect and that every one of us is hypocritical in some fashion at some point in time. For example, we may be staunch advocates of truth-telling, yet accede to telling a “white lie” in order to spare someone’s feelings.
Among the problems that we have with hypocrites is the fear that they will “fool us” and the rage we experience when we feel that we have been duped. This is symptomatic of a simplistic and childlike mindset that paints every situation in black and white. We want to be able to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” Not only does this sentiment fail to acknowledge the complex nature of modern society, but it also errs in equating the good with current social norms. Aside from the fact that such norms change rapidly, it behooves us to recognize the value of diversity and multiculturalism in that individuals with widely divergent traditions, mores and folkways can all make positive contributions to our heterogeneous society.
Some believe that once a hypocrite has been “outed,” nothing he or she says may be trusted ever again. We think of politicians who are elected on a “law and order” platform and then are discovered to be crooks themselves. A few years ago, a Scientific American article pointed out that our unwarranted emotional responses to hypocrisy (i.e., our unwillingness to put ourselves in the shoes of the hypocrite or, dare I say, to examine our own hypocrisy) “tend to short-circuit rational examination” of a person’s statements. Just because one acts hypocritically to avoid harsh social judgment in a particular area does not mean that every statement uttered by that individual should be discounted out of hand. Compassion, particularly among those of us who profess efforts to live a godly life, seems in order.
Yet compassion appears conspicuously lacking by many, particularly by those on the religious right, who chastise hypocrites as “liars” and “haters of the truth.” It may be more accurate to say that an intolerant, judgmental society is the real hater of truth, the truths that there will always be dissenters in our midst, that there is a place in life for personal choice, and that peaceful coexistence is possible without achieving universal consensus in regard to every belief and practice.