Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Consolation of Hypocrisy

"I'm a big fan of hypocrisy. At least a hypocrite knows how he ought to behave."
-P.J. O' Rourke

Of the few sins still commonly denounced, few attract as much condemnation as hypocrisy. We will forgive a person of most any offense except the willful misrepresentation of their perceived self; if, per se, a person who claims Christianity imposes those standards of behavior accordant with that position on another with no convincing submission to them on his own part, our first reaction is normally that "He has misrepresented himself," rather than the increasingly quaint "He has betrayed Christ."

Why the change? The above example illustrates the hypocrisy too common to those that try to seize the conventional moral high ground, but the coin is double sided; we apply the same judgment to one who postures himself as a cruder item than is the case. We expend the same ammunition on the middle class suburban teenager who would have is believe that he grew up in Compton and that the affected Blinglish he got off his cousin's Aesop Rock album is his natural dialect. While our response towards him usually involves more laughter and less of the derision we throw at the piatistic windbag in example A, our evaluation is similar: He has shown himself to be that which he is not.

Hypocrisy anymore can appear in the guise of anything on the socioeconomic gradient. It's no longer only the case that an immoral man counterfeits morality, but that poverty imitates wealth, and wealth imitates poverty. We not only are willing to tolerant the guy next to us, but come to prefer his status to our own, regardless of whether our imitation of him brings us up or down a notch in our visible status. It's one of democracy's odd quirks that it repudiates hypocrisy while providing it ground where it may thrive.

Democracy is like a parent who would rather be defied than breed anything dogmatic in its children, and consequently prefers to father bastardized anarchy over legitimately imposed order. It is to hypocrisy's detriment that it falls into the latter category; it dogmatizes where it pronounces itself exempt, and demands obedience where it likes to disobey. But if the hypocrite retains his authority, it's because he is theatrically convincing. When he establishes order, he must be careful not to undo that order by breaking character.

DeQuincey was wrong to include murder among the high arts. As Wilde said, "It is a crime for the vulgar classes." But hypocrisy is only for the artful. If it does not qualify as an aesthetic discipline, it is only because it doesn't need to ask us to suspend our disbelief; our disbelief, if the hypocrite is successful, has been done away with already. Lessing wrote in his Laocoon that the sculptures of Praxitiles revealed an indelible serenity of spirit, no matter how externally violent the depiction. Hypocrisy inverts this arrangement, with its plastic soul on the surface, and its grosser predilictions at the inscrutable center. None of the visible arts share this characteristic. It is too artful by half, and hence artifice.

At least it is a patrician sin. In an odd way, it fosters order, unlike more philistine offenses such as murder and rape. It is an impossible world to achieve, but an existance where hypocrisy was the only sin would be very pleasant. What the egalitarian does not understand is that there is a hierarchy of vices as well as virtues, and as with everything else, he has stood this natural arrangement on its head. I do not commend hypocrisy, but as vices go, it is sorely undervalued.

If only all sin were so subtle.


The said...

Nice post. I would guess Americans object the most to obvious hypocrisy. It's not that we really object to what the hypocrite is doing, or even that he's being dishonest about it; it's that he presumes to tell us what we should and shouldn't do. In all fairness, I think that the hypocrite fulfills one of two very American "virtues": getting away with it. The other one, is of course, "being yourself," and the hypocrite gets in the way of one being able to "act natur'l."


Anonymous said...

On the other hand, Jesus seemed to be less polite to the hypocrites than he was to the tax-collectors, adultresses and the woman who had been married five times and was living with a man who was not her husband. He may not have advocated the life-styles of the latter group, but it was the Pharisees that he called the brood of vipers.

RespectMyAuthorita said...

my hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Anonymous the Younger said...

Swigs of hypocrisy go good with steak.

Lincoln Davis said...


New post please.