In praise of hypocrisy

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I want to put in a good word for hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is so universally denounced — and no more so than by the hypocrites themselves — that we can forget that hypocrisy serves a useful function in the civilized world. Indeed, without it, civilization would hardly be possible.

To say one thing when you believe another is the lubrication of civilized life. It is, in another set of clothes, diplomacy. It is the avoidance of the unpleasant truth when the unpleasant truth will produce no results. A substituted fiction — hypocrisy — will allow action to proceed.

While the crassest forms of hypocrisy only solicit groans and outrage — when the televangelist is caught with his pants down or the anti-pornography crusader is discovered to be a swindler — more subtle forms serve several important purposes.

First, they produce a kind of national mythology, a set of beliefs, both high-minded and vague, that we can all buy into, even when individually we hold specific and opposing views. Everyone wants justice, for instance, but everyone defines it differently. The hypocrite invokes justice, knowing that more people will rally round the word than will rally round his particular policy direction.

Both opponents and proponents of affirmative action call on justice. Both pro- and anti-abortion activists call on it too.

Without the idealistic words to rally around, everyone dashes off in a hundred different directions.

The politician uses his hypocrisy to achieve ends. It works as a kind of legal fiction. Hypocrisy also helps us define what we truly believe in as a people. It doesn’t matter that George W. Bush executed more people than any other governor or that his state is near the bottom educationally: He ran as the compassionate conservative and touted education reform. His words, in this case, are more important than his actions.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich acknowledged the same in a column in American Prospect magazine when he compared the exorbitant hypocrisy of both sides in the 2000 presidential campaign and recognized the good that might come of it.

“If George W. wants to base his campaign on compassion, tolerance and educational opportunities for poor kids, let him. This is the best stuff I’ve heard coming out of the Republican Party since before Nelson Rockefeller was hooted down. If Al Gore wants to run on getting money out of politics and reining in powerful corporations, let’s cheer him on.”

And what is more, he said, their exhortations will produce voter expectations that they will have to satisfy in office. Their hypocrisy has pushed them into corners, and we will benefit.

At least, that was the theory. We’ll never really know, because Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything.

Slave-holding Thomas Jefferson was necessarily hypocritical when he wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. But that phrase has come to be a goal, and we have tried for more than 200 years to rise above our national hypocrisy. Can we say the nation would have been better off without that hypocrisy?

In other words, as Rochefoucauld said, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”

Hypocrisy has other roles in our civic life. We also want to present our side with the best appearance, which is why we hire lawyers. We are paying them money to be hypocrites, to argue passionately for a cause that we may be passionate about but likely the lawyer isn’t. Yet, we would still happy to have that lawyer — and his hypocrisy — on our side if we were in the dock.

Yes, it is galling when a public figure gets elected on a pro-family platform and then is discovered in a love nest with his tootsie. Yes, it is irritating when with one hand a politician proposes election-funding reform and with the other hand accepts huge donations from corporations. And it is no pleasant thing to see both candidates hypocritically claim the high motives of democracy when all they really want is the advantage in the election — and are willing to change sides on the issues when the outcome seems in jeopardy.

But it isn’t hypocrisy itself on trial. Hypocrisy is neither good nor bad. It is just a tool, to be used for good or ill.

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