72. Other Perspectives on Hypocrisy

As a little boy I was bewildered to hear my father denounce the “hypocrites,” “the fascists!” and “les cochons” (French for pigs). I had no idea whether these were imaginary figures, animals, real people, or simply the angry expletives of adults. Today I still hear the words “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” being hurled quite indiscriminately by politicians of all parties on both sides of the Atlantic. Obviously these words have endurance, having been coined by the Greeks 2,500 years ago to describe masked play-actors who falsely pretended to virtues they did not possess.

Today the crafty political hypocrites veil or mask their persona with assumed virtue, or as the 19th Century wit, Ambrose Bierce, wrote, “hypocrisy is prejudice with a halo.” Dictionaries define a hypocrite as pretending to a virtuous character with moral religious beliefs or principles that he does not really hold. I would define hypocrisy as being the devious pretense used to bridge the often unjust or undesirable gap between what is and what could be.

I think hypocrisy is so vehemently denounced because it assumes “that which is not” and, although the duplicity of the hypocrite is not as manifest as that of the cheat or the liar, it may rankle even more. That most insightful philosopher, Hannah Arendt, wrote that “what made the hypocrite so odious was that he claimed not only sincerity but naturalness.” She went on to point out that “Psychologically speaking one may say that the hypocrite is too ambitious; not only does he want to appear virtuous before others, he wants to convince himself.”1

What I find most intriguing about hypocrisy is its unexpected, and ultimately positive, impact. Our traditionally historical values, like freedom, honor, integrity, liberty, tolerance, truth and trust are being steadily devalued. However, when we attack those who are hypocritical in their promotion of certain values for political or economic reasons, we seem unable to recognize that the hypocrites are demonstrating to society that those values still exist.

One of the principal characteristics of moral fictions is that they purport to provide society with impersonal and objective criteria, which of course they do not. Morality is more than merely conforming to the norms of the great majority; it involves listening to an inner voice. One problem in judging a hypocrite is that we do not know what his or her inner voice might be. (And I wish to point out that it has been rare for a woman to be labeled as being hypocritical, although this is becoming less exceptional, witness the case of Hillary Clinton.)

Hypocrisy exposes the basic inconsistencies between the image politicians and religious leaders often seek to portray and the reality of their actions. Religion and hypocrisy frequently appear to go together. Sometimes this is even welcomed! One proselytizing minister, exclaimed: “The Church is full of Hypocrites! Yes, it is, and thank God for that, it means the church is doing its job. The church wants hypocrites, adulterers, thieves and more, for the church is where we receive healing. To condemn the church because it has failed members is to condemn a hospital because it’s full of sick people.”

The recent unwillingness of different churches to examine their own infractions or even their criminality, and cover this up with evasions and sanctimonious excuses, is gradually being corrected for Catholics by the openness of Pope Francis. Of all the attacks on hypocrisy in religion, none has ever moved me more than the passage from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. Douglass, (1818-1895) a former slave and eminent human rights leader in the abolition movement, was the first black citizen to hold a high U.S. government rank: “… I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land… I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.’ I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cow-skin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus… The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.”2

The early Christians, guided by St. Augustine, offered affixed revelation of confidently absolute and unchanging morality and truth. The religious life was to be lived in adherence to fixed beliefs. The depth of Christian sophistry in the middle ages was nothing less than hypocrisy in giving convenient exemptions to a large part of Christ’s teachings: The Gospel texts in favor of abolishing wealth and private property were absolute and largely ignored by all those seeking material gratification.

The next largest social grouping accused of hypocrisy are the politicians. Much of our moral and political talk of defending civilized values often covers hypocrisy driven by greed and envy. Hannah Arendt wrote that “In politics more than anywhere else, we have no possibility of distinguishing between being and appearance. In the realm of human affairs, being and appearance are indeed one and the same.”3

Politicians tend to justify themselves (and their supporters) for those moral lapses that they are always ready to condemn in the opposition. It is important to note that two hundred years ago Benjamin Disraeli, who was later to become Prime Minister, said on the floor of the House of Commons that “A Conservative government is organized hypocrisy.”4

Although not many Americans appreciate it, hypocrisy has been an important part of Washington’s ability to get its policies accepted abroad. In a featured article in the respected establishment magazine, Foreign Affairs, two political theoreticians cautioned readers on the End of Hypocrisy in Washington,5 For much of the post WWII era the sincerity of US politicians was so embedded that they could not accept that their hypocrisy was “a key strategic resource” nor that they were unable to abide by the moral values they trumpeted. Now, after the revelations of wikileaks, Manning and Snowden, Washington finds it far more difficult to cover-up its hypocrisy and many officials may even feel pressured to start practicing what they have preached.

A hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson, despite his ardent espousal of “open covenants openly arrived at, ultimately recognized that in international politics the action of sovereign states at times demanded a degree of hypocrisy. Now, elected officials in the age of nuclear, chemical, biological and terrorist threats are faced with responsibility for the fundamental welfare of their nation, so the extent to which they choose to match their decisions with moral constraints has to be nuanced. For example, after years of preaching the virtues of nuclear nonproliferation, Washington discreetly accepted Israel’s nukes and then affirmed India’s rights despite the fact that Delhi had flouted the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

No longer able to occupy the moral high ground, Washington’s pursuit of self-interest has become evident to all. The days of hegemony may be over but its administrators sorely miss “the lubricating oil of hypocrisy.”

American politicians are not alone in having become desensitized to their country’s double standards. Our aspirations may be fervent, but these are often not supported by the policy choices of politicians. Their hypocritical behavior tends to upset us because we would like to take peoples words and actions as witness to their character. Our generally liberal society is faced with the challenge of how we can preserve the virtues of diversity, individuality, tolerance and liberty when those virtues, carried to current capitalist extremes, serve to undermine society. Despite the erosion of morality in the 21st Century, the electorates, accustomed as they have become to hypocrisy, persist in believing that the difference between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, is important. Two philosophers cautioned a generation ago that we will perceive that we have a moral allegiance to a manifestly imperfect, if not immoral society, and we will find, paradoxically, that our duty lies in the service of ideals which we nevertheless know we cannot possibly achieve.”6

I shall not forget that beyond the religious and political domains, the fruits of hypocrisy are also shared by economists and bankers. Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz attributed the new lows of 2008 to “a pattern of dishonesty on the part of financial institutions and incompetence on the part of policy makers.”7 The hypocrisy of HSBC in advising thousands of its British and American clients on the best ways to avoid or evade taxes was manifest. Both customers and the media have become accustomed to the hypocrisy of banks which rejected any suggestion that they should face regulation and rebuffed any move towards anti-trust measures, but when the crisis struck in 2008, they pleaded for state intervention on the basis that they were too important to be allowed to fail.

However outrageous the history of hypocrisy may be, I think nothing matches the incredible role and the passion for unmasking it that came into play towards the end of the French Revolution of 1789. The hunt for hypocrites demanded by Robespierre became covered in blood. He and his followers equated virtue with the qualities of the heart and saw the subverting forces of intrigue, calumny, treachery and hypocrisy, above all, everywhere. Hypocrisy of the heart was the most feared because it was the best hidden of the conflicts of the soul. Hannah Arendt wrote that “the never-ending fight to ferret out the hypocrites was a fight which could only end in defeat because of the simple fact that it was impossible to distinguish between true and false patriots. Ultimately “It was the war on hypocrisy that transformed Robespierre’s dictatorship into the Reign of Terror.”8

It is surprising that hypocrisy, which I always regarded as a minor vice, could have been hated so intensively above all the others. Is it really such a monster? Hannah Arendt regarded the question of the relationship between being and appearance as one of the most ancient of metaphysical problems whose implications and perplexities with respect to the social and political realms challenged Socrates, Machiavelli, Nietzsche and modern philosophers as well.

Machiavelli instructed leaders to “Appear as you may wish to be.” By this he meant that it is not relevant how you really are in politics – only appearance counts. If you can manage to appear to others as you wish, you’ve got it made. Arendt said that the hypocrite’s crime is that he bears false witness against himself because integrity can exist under the cover of all other vices except hypocrisy. The courts of law have for centuries recognized that the manner of presentation can be as prejudicial as the verity of the evidence offered. Consequently elaborate structures of rules of evidence have arisen but none for judging a hypocrite.

Hypocrites do take advantage of the gap between aspirations and reality. The only way this could be overcome would be to deny aspirations. Hypocrites, however, have aspirations or claims to allegiance even if they cannot live up to them. So Giles Fraser, a London Priest, exclaims: “Hurrah for hypocrisy!” Fraser notes that “it is with the modern media that the charge of hypocrisy really takes off, for it is here that exposing the gap between moral aspiration and actual behavior has become one of the standard measures of a person’s moral standing.”9 Ironically, when it comes to morality, the hypocrite’s perceptions go to prove our cognizance of values and virtues. We must therefore be thankful for the very existence of hypocrisy for without it we might be even more amoral than we currently are.


1Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1963) p.103
2Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845)
3Arendt, op.cit.p.94
4Benjamin Disraeli, March 17, 1845)
5Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, “The End of Hypocrisy”, Foreign Affairs, November 2013.
6Michael Polanyi with Harry Prosch, Meaning (1975) p 214.
7Joseph Stiglitz, “The fruit of hypocrisy,” The Guardian, September 16, 2008.
8Arendt, op.cit. ,p .95
9Giles Fraser, ”Give me hypocrisy over cynicism every day,” The Guardian, February 25, 2015

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One thought on “72. Other Perspectives on Hypocrisy

  1. Great piece Yorick ,, I have experienced a fraction of the many faces of hypocrisy lately,, Hannah Arendt,is a name I’ll be researching ! unless you’ve got her number,,,,ps is she seeing anyone,,,, pps is there a grin on your face ?

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