We are constantly inundated with news reports about public figures and prominent organisations behaving in ways contrary to their stated principles.
Eliciting shock inversely proportional to our respective degrees of disillusionment, the exposés sensationally spotlight gaps between dramaturgical action and backstage actuality, but under-reported and under-hyped institutional tartuffery must also be cause for concern.
British academic David Runciman distinguishes between first-and second-order hypocrisy in a recent book on the subject. He says that “there is a big difference between those who do not live up to the standards they ask of others, and those who make a parade of their ability to set an example.”
According to Runciman, second-order hypocrisy has even more of a corrosive effect on society because it “makes a mockery of the whole business of public enactment.”
In February this year, the international media zeroed in on the misconduct of international charity Oxfam staffers responding to Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, ignoring the aid sector’s larger pattern of abuse and organisational hypocrisy.
The same culture of impunity that enables sexism and harassment within the offices of non-governmental organisations and the United Nations allows front-liners and peacekeepers to get away with exploiting highly vulnerable people in the field.
Innumerable children and women living in the most dire conditions have been molested, trafficked and tricked into believing that food, shelter and medicine come with strings attached by the people meant to help and protect them.
The fact that some humanitarian workers are so bereft of basic humanity is obviously horrific even without the added sting of hypocrisy because abuse of any kind is unacceptable.
At the very least, do-gooder entities should not be making bad situations worse. They would do well to ensure their altruistic purpose is actually and fully put into practice. Loud pledges and sanctimonious condemnations cut no ice if not backed up with genuine probity and accountability across the board.
Advocates of noble causes may be applauded for their stirring speeches, but it is what they do when they step off the soapbox that makes all the difference. Hollywood celebrities come out in force to demand stricter gun control after US mass shootings, but they exempt their own industry from the debate.
They wear anti-gun violence pins on the red carpet but keep armed security details on standby. They decry gun culture in award-show pontifications but star in films and television shows with titles and plots that glorify firearms and heavily feature gunplay and shootouts.
Such scenes may fire up those with aggressive inclinations. Abandoning a public stance for personal profit is not only unethical and irresponsible, but it can be fatally dangerous too.
Over 4,000 lives will have been lost in construction-related incidents in Qatar by the time the 2022 World Cup begins.
The Hypocrisy World Cup Campaign led by the International Trade Union Confederation, Skins Sportswear and the #NewFIFANow group is calling on the event’s International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) sponsors to take a stand against the human rights violations.
“Everyone is talking about the effect of Qatar’s extreme heat on a few hundred footballers, but they are ignoring the hardships, blood and sweat of thousands of migrant workers who will be building the World Cup stadiums in shifts that can last eight times the length of a football match,” Nepalese labour rights advocate Umesh Upadhyaya commented.
FIFA’s code of conduct promises “to preserve the inherent dignity and equal rights of each individual affected by FIFA’s activities.” So how can the organisation watch from the sidelines as thousands are subjected to systematic forced labour and life-threatening conditions under its banner?
“Virtue signalling” is the prevalent contemporary habit of expressing sentiments in order to appear upstanding and conscientious without necessarily committing to doing anything. It has become an indispensable tactic for companies looking to placate regulators and the public without bearing the financial burdens that can come with conducting business ethically.
Psychologists speak of a cyclical “moral-licensing effect” whereby one feels licensed to misbehave after establishing moral credentials and then feels a need to atone for these lapses or transgressions by making a show of morality.
New research out of Yale University in the US suggests that hypocrites are disliked not for their weakness of character or lack of willpower but because their moralising creates a false impression of goodness.
The mixed messaging of the fashion and beauty industry is so par for the course that it is rarely even recognised as two-faced.
For example, British-Dutch consumer products giant Unilever owns the soap brand Dove, known for its long-running “Real Beauty” campaign which celebrates diversity. It also owns Fair and Lovely, a skin-lightening cream that is racist by definition.
What are sometimes still archaically called “women’s interest magazines” have got hypocrisy down to a formula. Readers are warned about eating disorders on page three, then presented with the diet secrets of a model on page five.
They are granted permission to wear whatever they please on page eight, but urged to flatter their figure by page nine and prescribed style rules and seasonal trends to follow on page 10.
Social media “influencers” and “lifestyle bloggers” are not much better. Many feign concern about the “chase for perfection” that women in particular can face and pretend to promote body positivity in the captions of their contrived, airbrushed pictures.
Those who pat themselves on the back for wearing faux leather and fur instead of the real thing are prime examples of self-deceiving hypocrites. Why do they seek to emulate the very aesthetic of the animal cruelty they protest against? Fake fur cannot be touted as a “guilt-free alternative.” By normalising the look, it spikes demand for real fur.
We should be aware of our own double standards and identify duplicity when we observe it around us.
Some prefer to remain in a state of hypocrisy when their inconsistencies are pointed out to them, but many feel incentivised to stop engaging in activities they berate others for doing and start trying harder to live up to the ideals they claim to hold.
We must not let the prevalence of hypocrisy in society make it seem alright or make us passive because we cannot expect widescale reform if we can barely find it within ourselves to muster up a reaction.
The writer is founding director of the Egypt Diaspora Initiative.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Dismaying duplicity