WHY WE HATE HYPOCRISY BUT PROBABLY CAN’T DO WITHOUT IT
Of all the vices despised in our era, hypocrisy ranks highly. Public leaders in politics, business and the Church, among others, are routinely criticised for their double standards in matters of power, money and sex.
Definitions of hypocrisy include: ‘the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case’, so we can see why Christians, among others, are often accused of it.
It also has Gospel pedigree. Jesus was unsparingly hard on those who practised hypocritical religion; who said one thing and did another without shame or embarrassment. It is unpleasant to witness it. We are slow to see it in ourselves, if at all. But it is usually there.
Today, there is a question. Is relentless attention to hypocrisy corroding our common life? For it may be the price we have to pay to preserve shared ethical fabric.
The easiest way to avoid being charged with hypocrisy is to have few, if any, stated higher values. Where these do not exist, people are not found guilty for not meeting a target they didn’t embrace in the first place. By contrast, those who try to abide by higher standards can expect to be judged, often ruthlessly, for failing to meet their goal.
The lesson, which some appear to have learned, is that it is safer not to espouse any particular standards for personal conduct because you can expect greater leniency than if you aspire to higher values. An increasing number of public figures, including some very high-profile politicians, ensure they are judged by their own self-professed low standards than by the higher norms that used to prevail. This has been especially pronounced in the attitudes that some men strike towards women. Not before time, sexual assaults are being called out after years of impunity. There are several reasons why this is finally happening, but one not commented on may be a reaction to the cynical lowering of the bar on (often male) personal standards in public life.
So, a case can be made for hypocrisy as collateral damage in a society which seeks to better itself. Unpleasant as it is, there are times when it is the cost of aspiring to be good. We know what our values are, even if we don’t always meet them. But this is not how it works today. Instead, anyone speaking into the public domain for a more ethical shared life can expect to be scrutinised painstakingly for even a glimmer of moral failing. Why look for the log in your own eye when you can identify the speck in someone else’s? The result is, literally, demoralisation, as ethical value is sucked out of society.
No simple answers are available here. The Christian calling, for instance, is a high one: Jesus said we should be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. No sane person would suggest they come anywhere near this. Yet there is no cause to lose heart, for as we confess our shortcomings and seek the Holy Spirit’s strength to overcome them, God can change our character. The goal, we know, will only be reached in the world to come.
No-one likes hypocrisy, but if the way to avoid it is to lower the bar on public standards so no-one need be accused of it, we turn our back on moral progress. We are playing a messy game.
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