No vaccine for hypocrisy

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 30 Mar 2021

Hypocrisy is nothing new; it has been with us since the beginning of time, forever scorned, forever present

Much like a pandemic, hypocrisy has grown exponentially through the multiple outlets to help it spread around the world’s population.

Because it is hitting us from every angle, it may be hardly recognisable leaving no shelter for the few innocents. In such a polarised political climate, it has become a powerful weapon.

Hypocrisy is nothing new; it has been with us since the beginning of time, forever scorned, forever present.

Most people would define hypocrisy as lying, pretending, deceiving, it is all this and much more.

In his book The Virtues of Mendacity, Marten Jay explores how writers over the centuries have treated hypocrisy as deception, flattery, lying, cheating, slander, false pretenses, living on borrowed glory, masquerading, concealing, play-acting, the art of dissimulation.

According to British philosopher, David Runceman, hypocritical deception claims to knowledge that one lacks; a consistency that one cannot sustain; an identity that one does not hold and a loyalty that one does not possess.

The claim to loyalty immediately conjures the image of one Judas Iscariot, a faithful follower of Jesus, who sold him for 30 pieces of silver. He excelled at hypocrisy, putting his self-interest above his loyalty. As expressed by American political journalist Michael Gerson: “the conscious use of a mask to fool the public and gain political or financial benefit”.

We are tired of wearing masks to protect us from the coronavirus, but unknowingly, we wear several invisible masks as we assume different roles in life. This, however, is not deception but requirements of life’s obligations.

Hypocrisy has been the subject of folk-wisdom literature, from the beginning of human history. It has become increasingly prevalent since the 1980s. It is central to studies in “behavioural economics”, “cognitive science”, “cultural psychology”, “moral psychology”, “political sociology”, “positive psychology” and social psychology. Both a weapon and a tool, it is a given in today’s societies.

Once upon a time, it was a harmless, innocent word, applied to any public performance. In ancient Greece. “Hypocrites” were actors who, on stage, had to pick the right words and tones to give shape to a writer’s fantasy. It expressed the ability to sift or decide the appropriate manners, intonations and expressions.

When hypocrisy met politics it began to develop a negative meaning.

During the fourth century, Greek statesman Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschenes, once a successful actor, as “hypokrites”, one whose skill is impersonating actors on stage, made him an untrusted politician. The assumption of a counterfeit persona gave the modern meaning a negative connotation. It lingers to this day.

Religions as well scorn hypocrites.

In Islam, the Holy Quran condemns those who pretend to be believers, thinking they are fooling themselves and their followers, but can they fool God?

In Christianity, Jesus rails against the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites. Buddha admonishes a man who assumes the appearance of an ascetic but is full of passion within. Yet how often have we seen men of religion abusing their oath to this very day, while wearing the robes of piety.

Psychology has tried to explain the phenomenon, attributing hypocrisy to “those who are unaware of the dark shadow side of their nature”, says Carl Jung.

Philosophers have also found an interesting topic in hypocrisy.

Socrates, falsely accused by three highly influential Athenians, gave a persuasive speech, claiming his corrupt accusers were hypocrites, which they were. A jury of 500 citizens preferred to believe the mighty, neglecting to examine the evidence. Socrates was condemned and forced to drink hemlock.

Society always favoured power and privilege.

Is this not a sign of a hypocritical society, especially nowadays in this highly-paralysed political climate. We prefer appearance to evidence, fiction to fact.

As a race we dislike and deride hypocrisy, simultaneously we dislike criticism, yet we constantly criticise others for the same things that we do.

Simply put, we do not practice what we preach, which makes us all hypocrites.

Being a hypocrite is neither good nor bad in itself. The tu quoquue (you also) argument is a fallacy since a person can tell the truth and still be a hypocrite. Mankind has an interesting history of hypocrisy. We preach values, then we violate them and worse we criticise others for doing the same.

Hypocrisy seems to be as natural for humans as is breathing.

When the UN created Israel, were they not aware of the state of Palestine. Offered as a reward to the Jews for the atrocities committed by the Germans, are the Germans aware of how the Palestinians are being treated by the Israelis. Will they ever be rewarded?

During the last decades Americans are in the forefront of hypocrisy because of the slaves they inherited from the British. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson among others owned slaves, yet condemned their British rulers and longed for their freedom.

The young who cry out loud for climate change would never give up their air-conditioners, lap-tops, smart-phones, TVs. Eighty per cent of our electricity is produced by fossil fuels.

Are we inherently hypocritical? Politicians obviously are.

Barack Obama, a champion of immigrants, deported more migrants than any other American President in history.

Surprise, surprise, George Orwell himself while bashing Big Brother and governments snooping into personal lives worked as an informer for Big Brother in 1948, reporting on suspected communists and homosexuals.

Standards that cannot be kept are better than none.

 Hypocrisy is unavoidable. Hypocrisy is necessary.



“It is far easier for me to teach 20 what were good to be done than be one of the 20 to follow mine own teaching”.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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