Friday, January 11, 2013

In Praise of Hypocrisy (sort of)

Red Green has a nice piece (in The Green Red Green, p.185): “I was driving in the middle of a pack of cares on the highway this week. We were all speeding. No problem. Suddenly, a police car pulled out onto the highway and we all hit the brakes, trying to ease our way down to the speed limit. Luckily, the cop didn’t notice. He just thought his car must have tremendous power to be able to catch up on all of us that quickly. So we all moved at the same speed in a huge mass joined together by guilt. Thankfully, the cop got off a couple of exits later and we could all get back to breaking the law. But we’re not criminals. We just think there are a couple of laws that you obey only when a policeman is present. So when officers are around we pretend we always drive at a safe speed. And they pretend to believe us. It’s kind of an unspoken agreement between the two sides—like not swearing in front of your kids and vice versa.”

I like this! Sometimes we think of hypocrisy as the worst vice one can have. But surely this kind of hypocrisy has a good side.

When parents and children agree tacitly not to swear in front of each other, they restate and embrace the ideal, even if they fail to live up to it. When drivers (and police) play the game RG describes, they restate and embrace the ideal of following rules designed to help us live with each other safely. We break the rules too, but we admit that others are important.

Sometimes people respond by saying: I’m going to be transparent and live the way I really feel. Transparency and authenticity are good traits; but the unspoken assumption behind this attitude may be destructive. There is the idea that we can cure hypocrisy by throwing out rules for living. How about if we embrace RG’s version of hypocrisy above, and then cure the more serious forms of hypocrisy by embracing the ideals they reflect?

One fact behind hypocrisy is precisely that we do know what is right and wrong, and whatever we say, we want to be good. So the good in hypocrisy is that it reminds us that right is right, and wrong is wrong. Debates about the precise shape of right and wrong should continue, but please don’t throw out the quest to become good in order to get rid of the vice of hypocrisy!

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