Tuesday, November 07, 2006

On Hypocrisy

From the sci-fi book The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson, we get a fictional retrospective on our age's obsession with hypocrisy (h/t Instapundit):

"You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices," Finkle-McGraw said. "It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others -- after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?"

"Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others' shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever of his behaviour -- you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

"We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy," Finkle-McGraw continued. "In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception -- he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it's a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing."

"That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code."

Dennis Prager states frequently that you're a hypocrite if you

  1. espouse a high moral code and bust others for violating it,
  2. break this moral code in private, and
  3. when busted, explain that it's OK when you do it.

My musings on the nature of hypocrisy have yielded the observation that if there is a disparity between what you espouse and what you do, and you are cynically exploiting that disparity, then you're a hypocrite. For example, if you go around busting other people for adultery for the simple reason that it gives you moral standing among your peers (or it gets you elected into political office or something similar) -- but you blithely commit adultery yourself because in reality you don't see anything wrong with it -- then you're a hypocrite.

But like so many other powerful words in the English language, post-modernism has emasculated the words by inflating their meanings to include everything that merely resembles it. Waterboarding is "torture," regretted consensual sex is "rape," attending church on Sunday but a strip club on Saturday night is "hypocrisy," favoring capital punishment but not abortion is "hypocrisy."

I think that one reason many on the Left enjoy leveling the charge of hypocrisy is that they themselves are so often immune from it. You can never accuse them of not living up to their high moral standards because they don't have any. And as the fictional Finkle-McGraw said, when you've done away with all objective standards, the only standards you can use are those that individuals hold or appear to hold.

Folks, here are some less-forceful yet more-accurate words for those things that are often mislabeled:

  • not torture but "hardball" or "coersion"
  • not rape but "poor judgment" or "promiscuity"
  • not hypocrisy but "inconsistency" or "weakness" or "stupidity" or "not getting it"

But please, let's reserve words like "torture" and "rape" and "hypocrisy" for when they're actually called for. Anyone who can't see the difference between waterboarding and ramming a hot poker up someone's rectum has some serious problems with perspective.

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