People are quick to notice when there is any inconsistency between what we say and what we do. For example if you are nice to someone but nasty about them when they are not there. The danger then is of people seeing you as two-faced. I’m sure there is more risk of being thought of as a hypocrite if we have strong principles. We are less likely to be able to live up to what we like to talk about.
I may be strong on green issues. Decrying the increasing amount of vehicles on the roads that emit carbon into the atmosphere. Yet, I fly abroad on holiday. This may remind you of the left-wing politicians who, championing equal opportunities, nevertheless, send their children to the best schools. Would it be unfair to tell us, “You don’t practice what you preach”?
I don’t want those I know to perceive me as a hypocrite. I have written a lot about interpersonal matters, like tolerance, patience, kindness and so on. So, I feel self-conscious about how I behave in my personal life.
Parents don’t often realise that ‘Do as I say (and not as I do)’ looks phoney.
“Kids have what I call a built-in hypocrisy antenna that comes up and blocks out what you’re saying when you’re being a hypocrite.” (Ben Carson, American politician)
But is this fair? No one is perfect. We’re all a work in progress.
It has been said that a lot of politeness in ordinary affairs is insincere – more a conformity to social etiquette than genuine concern for someone. Kate Fox has researched the way English people communicate with each other. In her book Watching the English she finds that the never-ending use of the word ‘please’ camouflages instructions as requests. She also maintains that the constant employment of ‘thank-you’ maintains an illusion of friendly equality.
“On average, at least every other ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’, ‘nice’, ‘lovely’, (plus smiles, nods, etc) is hypocritical.” (Kate Fox, social anthropologist)
Such words are said to function to conceal real opinions and feelings in order to avoid causing offence or embarrassment or rocking the boat. According to this view, pretence is the English default position to help with the challenge of social interaction. It is said that this mild form of hypocrisy is mainly a matter of:
“unconscious, collective self-deception – collusion in an unspoken agreement to delude ourselves – rather than a deliberate, cynical, calculated attempt to deceive others.” (Kate Fox, social anthropologist)
So perhaps you shouldn’t be criticised as a hypocrite just because you are not fully up front with any hidden negative feelings in the way you politely interact with others.
Pretence in relationships
Hypocrisy is the discrepancy between what we inwardly feel and what we outwardly do or say. However, I would like to suggest that, in an intimate relationship, not all inconsistency between inner and outer is bad.
For example someone suggested that it might not be prudent to give full vent in your display of inner affection towards your lover. Why ever not? One suggested answer is to prevent your partner complacently taking you for granted.
Another example concerns the marital row. Why not swallow one’s pride and pour oil on troubled waters rather than express all one’s anger. Some degree of this sort of pretence might actually lead to later enjoyment of each other’s company or even bring about a difficult to find reconciliation.
Dare I put forward the notion that the exaggeration of tolerance and respect – for example as when seeming to excuse faults – may keep two quarrelling partners together. Not all marriages are made in heaven with deep feelings of mutual love. Such pretending might be good for the relationship and the needs of the family as a whole.
Emanuel Swedenborg the 18th century spiritual philosopher, distinguished between what he called praiseworthy pretences and hypocritical pretences. He said the former are for the sake of what is good. They are intended to ensure concord in child rearing, promote peace in the home, as well as protect reputations outside the home.
Harm done by the hypocrite
I have defended superficial politeness in social situations and being economical with the truth in marriage. However, I do not deny the harm hypocrisy can do. The self-righteous hypocrite undermines any good principles e.g. regarding marital fidelity, payment of tax, or sober driving, that they happen to proclaim to the rooftops. This is done by the opposite things he or she does behind the scenes. Any worthy political or social criticism they make is not heard. Instead of reflecting on the relevance of the points, don’t we tend to focus on the messenger rather than the message? “Well you do it too” or “Who are you to criticise us?” It is as if we are saying ‘Two wrongs make a right’ and so we can stop listening.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus criticises the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites in the passage known as the Woes of the Pharisees.
Also in the Buddhist text Dhammapada, Gautama Buddha censures a man who takes the appearance of an ascetic but is full of passions within.
At the same time, in Islam, hypocrisy is a serious sickness. The Qur’an rails against those who claim to be believers and peacemakers, but act in a different way, thinking they are fooling Allah and others, but only fooling themselves.
Self-deception of the hypocrite
One might think that the person, who acts like a hypocrite, knows full well they are trying to deceive others. But I’m not so sure. I suspect many of us just don’t get the discrepancy that others can see. I mean any inconsistency between our inner attitudes and the outward expression of our views. Aren’t we all capable of hypocrisy?
According to Carl Jung there is a shadowy side to our character about which we should not deceive ourselves. A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can lead to personal change for the good. Unless we root out what is undesirable within us we cannot hope to become better people.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
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