Beyond Hypocrisy

Identifying hypocrisy in others is a premier way of discrediting them and is a part of the zeitgeist of 21st-century life. Since people tend to produce such an abundance of accessible information on their webpages and networks, it is easy to analyze this information and discover where they have espoused a belief yet expressed contrary actions or statements. Particularly if someone is criticizing you, they can often be discredited not by analyzing their criticism, but by illuminating inconsistencies in their rhetoric and thus demonstrating their moral inferiority, or at least their absence of moral superiority. The implication is that anything they say to criticize or advise others should be ignored, because they cannot even maintain consistency in their personal narrative.

Anonymous attackers cannot be accused of hypocrisy except on the basis of inconsistencies in their attacks. If you know nothing about your critic, there is no canon of literature or Facebook postings to show they are as fallible and hypocritical as they accuse you of being. Privacy grants superiority, because it means you have no past statements or actions to be held accountable to. You can point out the flaws of others without giving them any ammunition. If you are not interested in criticizing others, privacy at least shelters you from others who want to criticize you.

Self-reporting as a Christian is an easy way to be hypocritical. A Christian is one who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ taught his followers to turn the other cheek, to give all that one has to the poor, to love one’s neighbors, and to cut off one’s hand if it causes him or her to sin. Since many people who proclaim to be Christians do not follow his teachings, many Christians are hypocrites. Theoretically, one can call out the hypocrisy of Christians without fear of retribution, because Jesus Christ also said “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” which, more broadly applied as a general principle, means that a Christian should not point out faults in others.

Being labeled a hypocrite has a strong negative connotation in Western culture. It can be compared to schizophrenia without the associated waiver of personal responsibility. It is arguably worse than being labeled a liar, cheater, usurper, or thief. It means that one cannot even practice what they impose on others, nor follow what they espouse as personal or universal principles for authentic living. Because the hypocrite label has become quite powerful, it is much more salient to say “person X is a hypocrite!” than “person X is acting hypocritically.” If someone can be labeled a hypocrite, they are discredited now and forever, but if we admit their act of hypocrisy may be an uncommon or isolated incident among numerous statements and actions, the proclamation is greatly weakened.

Elevating hypocrisy to such heights is unnatural, unethical, dehumanizing, and an impedance to progress. It paradoxically makes people who say nothing, write nothing, and do nothing morally superior to artists, lovers, and creators. One cannot be a hypocrite if one makes no statements to contradict! Demanding that others maintain the same values, perspectives, and beliefs throughout their lifespans—or even among different settings in a single day (i.e. work life versus home life)—is restrictive and unreasonable. Expecting them to issue a plethora of retractions and apologies when their stated beliefs change is ridiculous. Shifts in personal values often occur gradually and without notice. To say that my 2014 self is hypocritical to my 2009 self is likely accurate, but more importantly, a useless criticism. If I have not been hypocritical, I probably should have been trying harder.

I had the idea for writing this essay before doing some searches and found this blog post which quotes The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The author of the blog post (who is incidentally anonymous) concludes hypocrisy is better than “preaching nothing and lacking morality altogether.” While I disagree with this conclusion and see them as equivalent, seeing hypocrisy in this light is a welcome change and may enable people to take bolder risks and accomplish greater things in life.

It is a common belief that people who claim the moral high ground should be held to a higher standard than ordinary people. This allows their hypocrisy to be parroted by people who are just as hypocritical, under the assumption that as a teacher or public figure, they should—to use two clichés—either walk the walk or get off the soapbox. However, what if the opposite is closer to the truth? Since prolific creators have more “baggage” associated with their past work, perhaps they should be given more leeway when compared with people who create very little? It is easy to contradict yourself when you are adding to a large canon of work. Contradiction might be both inevitable and desirable. If we maintain the same beliefs indefinitely and consider this practice virtuous, we deny ourselves the educational opportunities of playing devil’s advocate.

Who has the authority to say what is right and wrong, what is true and false? If we believe in moral absolutism, we might believe truth is universal and can come from anyone—including people who usually lie. If we believe in moral relativism, we might believe truth is changing and the same standard could be true when taught by one person and false when taught by another. This is not to say that absolutism is better than relativism, or to comprehensively distill either perspective. I am trying to say that both have value and both should be used. Homogenizing concepts that appear diametrically opposed is one of the greatest joys in philosophical exploration. However, it is impossible to experience if you are not willing to be a hypocrite.

To move beyond hypocrisy, we must minimize the stigmas and taboos associated with it. Being hypocritical must be seen as no worse than being angry, forgetful, misinformed, or human. Only then will artists have the freedom to operate without being heckled by a type of criticism that has been given too much power for far too long.

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  1. Pingback: A Paradox of Free Will | Richard X. Thripp's Website

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