Why Hypocrisy is Good

Monday, 10 November 2008

[Picture of religious hypocrite accusation]AN hypocrite is someone who hides intentions or true personality. At least, it is almost everywhere except where people speak English.  For some unknown reason, in English, the word has a different meaning.

When someone preaches something, but practices the exact opposite, then (but only in English) that person is accused of being an hypocrite, or of acting hypocritically. I am going to show that being an hypocrite is (a) normal, (b) healthy, (c) necessary for a civil society, (d) honest and (e) one of your human rights.

First of all, it is interesting that there are two different meanings.  To find out why, it might help to look up the origins of the word.  I did that, and discovered that it comes from the ancient Greek, hypokrisis (ὑπόκρισις), which meant acting.

[picture of greek mask - tragedy]The Greeks are often called the first civilisation because they were the first to have organised and worked so well together as a society, that they had “free time” or “leisure” to fill with “luxurious” activities — activities that were not required for existence or comfort, things like philosophy, politics, sculpture, games, and writing poetry and plays.

They invented play acting as a way to dramatically tell tales.  To speak the written words is tantamount to lying or being inauthentic — the actor “pretends” to be another character, and the audience allow this in an entirely new type of social contract; it was understood that the actor was being hypocritical.

From this, it’s not much of a leap to the modern meaning of the word in most countries.  It has drifted away from actors on the stage, and is applied to anyone, anywhere, who is hiding their motives or intentions, or who pretends to be sad in public to gain sympathy, or who pretends to be clever and educated or from some high-class background.

Is that so bad?

Well, I guess the stock answer would be that as long as no harm was intended (or done), or as long as it was not done to gain advantage. But then, when I thought about it a bit more, I realised that being an hypocrite is standard mode for everyone on a romantic date or attending a job interview. These are clear cut examples of people hiding their true feelings, personality, and intentions in order to gain an advantage, a competitive advantage.

In fact, it seems to be well understood and socially acceptable — indeed it is expected that one should put one’s “best foot forward”.

[picture of man bowing politely]Hmm. Let’s take this a bit further. Society, it seems to me, holds in great esteem, behaviour that is considered polite and well-mannered.  A person is expected to be courteous and caring, regardless of mood or circumstances, otherwise they will be found in contempt.  So people start their letters with “Dear Sir” and finish with “Yours Faithfully”, and they bid each other “Good Morning”, and ask “How’s the family?” or “How’s it going/ how are you?” — and while this is classic hypocrisy, it is an highly rated personal quality of character.

The professions are supposed to be able to divorce their feelings from their professional lives — lawyers will argue a man’s defence in the full knowledge of his guilt, surgeons will operate without horror, and we expect that of them.  We expect civility and hypocrisy from waiters and bar-tenders (we expect a warm welcome whatever their mood)!

The stiff upper lip of the British, the “Poker” Face — they are hypocritical things.

So is hypocrisy a bad thing? — No, obviously not! It is a normal mode of behaviour, and something that ought to be encouraged as the pinnacle of civilisation.

[picture of Georeg Bush being accused of being an hypocrite]But what of the English-American accusation?  This is a different meaning; this is about saying one thing and doing the exact opposite.

Well, let’s think it through.  If you are addicted to drugs, drink or cigarettes, and yet you say to your children not to use drugs, drink or cigarettes, you will be “accused” of being an hypocrite. Well, to me, that is understandable — and furthermore, an addict would be the best person to advise someone on the subject!  If that’s hypocrisy, then I am OK with that!

The thing is that this is a classic Tu quoque ad hominem fallacy (see “How Words manipulate Part 2“) — the format is:

  • A makes criticism P.
  • A is also guilty of P.
  • Therefore, P is trashed.

For example: “Thomas Jefferson argued that slavery was wrong and should be abolished, but since Jefferson himself owned slaves, how could slavery be wrong?”.

Slavery was either right or wrong, regardless of Jefferson’s actions. The validity or truth-value of Jefferson’s argument is not affected by his participation in slavery.

Another example: “You claim that this man is innocent, but you cannot be trusted since you are a criminal as well.”

The English interpretation of “hypocrisy” is therefore nonsensical.

Everything that comes under English Hypocrisy is actually a fallacy — meaning that it is flawed reasoning, illogical, and basically dead wrong.

In other words, and to be perfectly clear about this, when an English person “accuses” someone of being an hypocrite, they are talking nonsense / baloney/ bollocks.

In fact, when you think on this a bit more, it starts to become clear that in such cases (in all English cases), the truth lies in the opposite direction — that the person being accused is the one who is right, and the accuser is wrong. Just turn it around and ask why would it be better to have a drug addict promoting drug-taking than to be accused of being an hypocrite?

A fat person is the best person to tell someone of the pitfalls of a bad diet with no exercise.  A criminal is the best person to stop someone taking up a life of crime. This is NOT hypocrisy; this is truth.

I am not a fan of over-simplification, or dumbing-down. I would hate it is everyone became ingenuous, rude or brutish instead of being polite, civilised and refined. I like hypocrisy because I understand it.

[picture of a lap - pole dancer]A man may take a wife and together they may have a baby girl.  Females make themselves attractive to men, so this man  will naturally find other females attractive. This is not cheating on his wife.  He is not a hypocrite because of his marriage vows. Some of the attractive females may be the same age as the daughter, but this is not weird.  The man may be very prudish about his wife and daughter, but still joke with his men friends about passing girls or Page 3 pictures.

The point I am trying to make is that we would go insane if we were not able to act in character, to adopt a role or mode, to put on a uniform and be a policeman, but to also be able to play the role of father, son, brother, lover and the rest.  We would be crazy if we could not be hypocritical and if we could not compartmentalise mentally.  It is not insincerity or being false, it’s actually about being honest if not truthful — the man refuses to see his daughter/ wife/ mother/ sister/in-laws in the same way as he sees a lap-dancer.  Because he can only be in one role at a time — he is not a father when he looks at the attractive girl, and he does not act like one of the lads with his wife. Yes, this is hypocrisy, but it is a good thing, and it is much closer to the real truth than anything else I can think up.

And if you are a public figure, and if you are gay or if you take drugs, are you supposed to do anything to avoid being called a hypocrite by ignoring your responsibility as a role model?

What good would come from that or for being rude at a job interview, being frank and straightforward on a date, or flirting with relatives?

I really do believe that it is OK to promote values that you want to promote — you have that right.  It is fair to say that just because you are a weak sinner doesn’t mean that you cannot try to set a better example by keeping up appearances — who wants to wash their dirty linen in public?

There is the weird result of the investigation here — hypocrisy is not only a good thing, but it is THE good thing; it is about being considerate to other people, and inwardly honest (if not outwardly honest) too.

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6 Responses to “Why Hypocrisy is Good”

  1. Betty Says:

    I don’t get the point you’re trying to make about the meaning in English, different from in other languages (?) It’s the same in Swedish and all other languages I know I tell ya

  2. keely Says:

    If you check wikipedia.org, it says:
    “Hypocrisy (or the state of being a hypocrite) is the act of preaching a certain belief, religion or way of life, but not, in fact, holding these same virtues oneself. For example, if a person were to tell one to stop smoking cigarettes yet they smoke themself, this is hypocrisy.

    In other languages, including French, a hypocrite is one who hides his intentions and true personality. This definition is different from that of the English language.”

  3. Face Poker Says:

    I have looked over your blog a few times and I love it.


  4. I think this article is practical for anyone who wants to survive in the real world.


  5. I like your reasoning but if you go by definitations you have elaborately described ‘prudence’ instead of hypocricy.Quoting you “A fat person is the best person to tell someone of the pitfalls of a bad diet with no exercise. A criminal is the best person to stop someone taking up a life of crime. This is NOT hypocrisy; this is truth.”These people become capable of sharing their pitfalls only when they have successfully overcome them.Pitfalls of a fat or a criminal mind otherwise need not be exclusively told by such a person as it is quite apparent to us.When a person improves a shortcoming they are in a better position to share this ‘truth’ about themselves


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