Saturday, 12 August 2006

In praise of hypocrisy

I was raised in Sunday school. I'm not supposed to be in favour of hypocrisy. And I'm not. Really truly. Who could possibly be in favour of child-molesting priests, politicians on the take, environmentalists who hide SUV's in their garages and nutritionists who scarf down chocolate bars on the sly? ("Flavonoids, my deah, the operative word is flavonoids.") OK, I admit, it's hard to get in a lather about that last one, but you know what I mean.

Given a choice between the real thing and a faker, I'll take the real thing anyday. But more and more that's not the choice I'm given. When I have to pick between the slimy pretenders and the people proudly trumpeting their vice to the world, I'll take the slimeballs.

The hypocrites are at least acknowledging that what they are covering up is wrong, or at the very least, socially unacceptable. As Fran├žois de la Rochefoucauld famously said, "Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue." There is still an operative sense of shame and a tacit acknowledgement that what they are keeping under wraps is wrong.

Contrast that, for instance, with NAMBLA and its avowed aim to "leave" children "free to determine the content of their own sexual experiences." Or with Paris Hilton and her open quest for the venal, the superficial and the narcissistic.

Somehow, they evoke in me a much deeper sense of horror. And quite apart from my own personal feelings, which really don't much matter to anyone who isn't me, there is the fact that these people serve as magnets for the like-minded and together, they enable and embolden each other. It's like removing a quarantine; the sickness spreads more easily.

Hypocrisy is indeed a vice, but in the long run it's preferable to shamelessness.

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Anonymous said...

I agree that hypocrisy is prefferable to shamelessness, but my question to you is this: Is hypocrisy always a vice?

- best, Jeremy Lott
author, In Defense of Hypocrisy

Janet said...


I cannot think of any circumstances under which hypocrisy could be considered a virtue. I would imagine that if you've written a whole book on it, as opposed to my one rather short post, there's a good chance you've given it more thought than me. If you've got a scenario for me, throw it at me. On my own battery, I can't come up with one. Obviously, I can think of quite a few where it is a lesser of evils.

Hypocrisy can do a lot of damage too. Where it is serving to mask and enable evil, it is positively vicious. Hypocrisy unmasked can cause severe disillusionment, making people abandon a good cause or a good belief because of the failings of its representatives.

So the short answer to your question is: yes, hypocrisy is always a vice. But there are worse.

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