24 June 2009

The Most Modern of Vices...

It's rare for both sides in a comment section regarding some recent political event not to call each other hypocrites (a recent example at Althouse can be found in the comments for this post regarding Obama's press conference). Nobody seems to ask the more salient question, 'what's wrong with hypocrisy?'.

Seeing hypocrisy as a great sin is patently childish. It's real playground stuff, realizing that people in authority do one thing while saying another, and have different rules for you compared to themselves is a common complaint if you are 4 or 6 or 8, but you'd think adults would know better than to take hypocrisy too seriously.

I think a couple of quotes (culled from the Quote Garden) well illustrate the pre-modern view of hypocrisy when compared to the post-modern.

For the pre-modern view,
Hypocrisy is an homage that vice renders to virtue. ~Fran├žois, Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, 1678

For the more or less post-modern view (or at least Marxist)
The hypocrite's crime is that he bears false witness against himself. What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core. ~Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1963

How can views regarding hypocrisy have 'evolved' from an "an homage that vice renders to virtue" to "plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices"? I think for all the navel-gazing popular in more or less recent times, folks have developed a massive blindspot to their own weaknesses, while simultaneously developing a hyper-awareness of the failings of others. That's how someone like La Rochefoucauld can say something so forgiving about personal weakness, while recognizing that striving to appear good to others is as important as actually being good, and when we fail, it's not for lack of virtue. Arendt, though, can easily claim that, "only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core". For Arendt, and most other modern and postmodern thinkers who tackle the subject, having good intentions coupled with bad actions, or having bad intentions coupled with good actions is unforgiveable. Having bad intentions followed by bad actions may be perplexing, but at least those people are honest with themselves and the world.

That's why a few bad soldiers in an Iraqi prison doing some horrible things and being stupid enough to take photos of their misdeeds can be reason enough to condemn the entire US Government, while thugs on motorbikes under the direct command of a dictatorial cleric in Iraq aren't really any of our business and even when they murder non-violent protestors, we shouldn't be dissuaded from reaching out diplomatically to that thugocracy.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I'll take the person (or government) who strives to be virtuous, but occasionally misses the mark, over the honest rogue any day of the week. There is nothing rotten about hypocrisy or hypocrites, only the rarest of saints, or those without any moral compass whatsoever are able to claim to never have indulged in a moment or two of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the one vice whose opportunities for indulgence increase the more virtuous you are.

Hypocrisy is fine if one is contrite when caught, that's far preferable to those that are utterly shameless and looking to point fingers outward when their mistakes are brought to light.

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