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This is a question Hypocrisy

Overheard the other day: "I've told you before - stop swearing in front of the kids, for fuck's sake." Your tales of double standards please.

(, Thu 19 Feb 2009, 12:21)
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Pause for thought...
Disclaimer: Not my own work.

Hypocrisy is a favorite accusation in our society, the charge tossed about with carefree abandon by Left, Right, and the nonpolitical.

No one has ever died at the hands of hypocrisy, yet it's a deadly accusation, widely treated as among the greatest of evils. A mere accusation of hypocrisy can halt a debate by silencing the accused, forcing him off-topic to defend himself against the tangential charge of hypocrisy.

This is how and why so many talking-head shows quickly degenerate into everyone accusing everyone else of hypocrisy, with nothing of substance actually discussed.

Most everyone agrees that a speaker's moral character is irrelevant to the validity of his argument, and yet in contravention to this rule of Logic, most everyone also regards hypocrites as unworthy advocates.

The Congressman who has an affair is deemed unfit to advocate "family values," regardless of his legislation's merits. The celebrity who builds on her country estate is deemed unfit to promote environmental conservation. The parent who smokes is deemed unfit to counsel against drugs. All may (or may not) have good ideas, but presumably, we should not listen to them and decide on the merits, because they are "hypocrites."

Yet the accusers are often guilty of worse than hypocrisy: dishonesty, disingenuousness, and intellectual laziness.

Intellectual laziness, because charging hypocrisy allows the accuser to avoid the difficulty of defending an argument. It is intellectually easier to accuse an opponent of hypocrisy, and leave it at that.

Disingenuousness, because often their hidden motive is to avoid the risk of challenging a popular position. It is politically safer to accuse an opponent of hypocrisy, and leave it at that.

And also dishonesty, because the charge of hypocrisy is rarely accurate. It has been bandied about so recklessly -- on talk radio and daytime TV, in high schools and colleges, among pundits and activists -- that "hypocrite" has come to mean: "I don't like you. You're bad. And I don't want to have to defend that position."

What is hypocrisy?

Rather than look to a dictionary, I've applied a Socratic method, considering the word's usage and implications in varied situations, and I've concluded that "hypocrisy" comprises Four Elements, all necessary for a person to be guilty as charged.

A hypocrite is someone who: (1) advocates a standard, (2) publicly applies that standard to himself, (3) fails to meet that standard, and (4) hides or denies his failure.

All Four Elements are required, yet hypocrisy is often confused with Element # 3 alone: Failing to meet one's own standards. The Christian minister who cheats on his wife. The rich liberal who opposes school vouchers but enrolls his children in private school.

Failing to meet one's own standards is not hypocrisy.

If an obese woman advocates dieting, but laments the difficulty of sticking to one, is she a hypocrite? Of course not. She has failed to meet her standards, to follow her own advice. But she is not a hypocrite because Element # 4 is missing. She never claimed to stick to her diet.

Thus, a Christian minister who routinely confesses to being a sinner (as many Christians do), or a rich liberal who laments that public schools are just not good enough for his children, would not be hypocrites. They advocate certain standards, yet admit to falling short.

Falling short of a standard should be no bar to advocating a high standard, so long as one is open about his own shortcomings. Were it otherwise, smokers would be deemed unfit to warn children against tobacco, lest they be "hypocrites." Yet a man who fails to meet his own standards, rather than being a hypocrite, is often the best advocate of a different course of action.

Sometimes the best advice is: "Do as I say, not as I do."

(Accurate definitions aside, one practical problem of defining hypocrisy as failing to meet one's own standards is that it discourages high standards. Under this false definition, a man who merely meets 80% of his high standards is judged worse than a man of no standards. "At least he's not a hypocrite!" Yes, at the very least.)

Hypocrisy is also confused with double standards. Yet once again:

Double standards are not hypocrisy.

Dad goes to bed later than the bedtime he sets for his child. Does this double standard make dad a hypocrite? Of course not -- because Element #2 is missing. Dad never applied his child's bedtime to himself. Indeed, he would freely admit to anyone who asks that his child's bedtime does not apply to him.

A mere double standard is not hypocrisy.

A movie star advocates a ban on gun ownership, but then obtains a carry permit. Is she a hypocrite? Yes, if she suggested that all should be banned from owning a gun. But if she publicly claims that celebrities are entitled to a gun privilege denied to others, then no. She'd be arrogant and elitist, but not a hypocrite.

The validity of a double standard is irrelevant to the issue of hypocrisy. A double standard may be just and rational, or unjust and irrational. Hypocrisy flows from the attempt to hide or deny a double standard, not from the merits of a double standard.

A young black militant charges an older black conservative with hypocrisy for attacking affirmative action, yet benefiting from it when he was young. Is the black conservative a hypocrite? Not if he says affirmative action was appropriate thirty years ago, but no longer. (This is merely a double standard.) Nor if he admitted benefiting from affirmative action, but claims he was wrong to do so. (This is merely failing to meet one's own standards.)

Likewise, a black militant who admits to a double standard in assessing white and black racism (because "whites have power") is not a hypocrite. He may (or may not) be wrong, elitist, or arrogant. But his open admission of a double standard absolves him of hypocrisy.

And finally, what really is so awful about hypocrisy?

Recall the adage: hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. It most offends adolescents, adolescent mindsets, and those who live comfortably untouched by serious evils.

Hypocrisy is not nice. But it is not genocide, murder, or rape. Nor even turnstile jumping. On a scale of evils, it's a petty offense. Most everyone commits hypocrisy at one time or another, just as most everyone speeds on a highway. Speeding endangers more lives, yet hypocrisy upsets more people. Go figure.

If more people understood hypocrisy's Four Elements, they'd spot the many false charges. Then pundits and activists would stop hurling baseless accusations. We'd dampen 90% of the noise on radio and TV shoutfests. And then perhaps we can have more substantive discussions in the news media.

annnnd breathe.
(, Fri 20 Feb 2009, 13:12, 5 replies)
The voice of reason....
.....lovely, I enjoyed that.

(, Fri 20 Feb 2009, 14:38, closed)
You know...
I'm actually taking this seriously. That's a first for me.
(, Fri 20 Feb 2009, 17:12, closed)
Excellent points all around, well done.
(, Fri 20 Feb 2009, 21:31, closed)
Good find!
I enjoyed that.
(, Mon 23 Feb 2009, 14:39, closed)
I like this.
But whatever the true definition of Hypocrisy, I think the relevant issue is much more:

"Falling short of a standard should be no bar to advocating a high standard, so long as one is open about his own shortcomings"

Why not?

Not requiring standards you cannot yourself meet is the only way in which we can ensure that people are not unduly burdened, penalised or oppressed by those who make the rules.

"Only impose those rules which you yourself can accept" should be a rule (and I will accept it).

The Churchman who cheats on his wife should not confess and repent, he should consider whether the rules he imposes are unrealistic. Perhaps he would not have cheated if he had been able to admit that his marriage had disintegrated and either fixed it or separated. Perhaps he should never have married the woman he did but his choices were restricted. He imposed the rules and if he cannot accept them he should stop trying to require them.

There is also a distinction to draw between "advocating" and rule-making. The dieter can advocate dieting and people will just think her feeble. But if there is a penalty to pay for not making the standard then admitting that it is difficult should not absolve her from this. She should not impose a punishment for failing to achieve a standard that she cannot meet because she has not shown that it is achievable.

This does not necessarily mean that double-standards cannot apply (the child's bed-time is different to the fathers) because the categories of application are different, and furthermore justifiable (adults do need less sleep than children). However, where you fall into the category, to have the authority to make the rule you should meet it.

"Do what I say and not what I do" is a recipe for unrealistic rule-making and oppression. If you require high standards then have those with highest standards making the rules. That way they will still meet them and everyone will respect the rules all the more for that.

(sorry, got carried away)

PS *click*
(, Mon 23 Feb 2009, 19:27, closed)

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