When I was in college, there was one person in particular who would attempt to shut down a conversation by labeling the opposition a hypocrite. It is a useful tool, especially if you are sick of the conversation, the opposing side is starting to make a very good point, you don’t like the person making the point, or you are just plain cantankerous or mean.
Having been the target of such accusations, I know how frustrating, not to mention embarrassing (depending on the offense), this can be. On some visceral level, we know that labeling an opponent a hypocrite is a weak argument for OUR position, but be that as it may, it often has the desired result of sucking the wind from the sails of a discussion. These verbal quips are the equivalent of a “sucker punch”; designed to undermine a legitimate message by attacking the character of the person delivering it. People who employ this tactic on a regular basis are, in my opinion, bullies. I think that is a topic of another discussion.
Anyway, why am I thinking about hypocrites and hypocrisy now? It started with someone sharing a link to a video. This video suggested that there is no discrimination aimed toward women and that this is only a “made up” thing invented by liberal feminists and a biased liberal media. The women who made the video (yes, I said women), attempted to make their case, in part, by suggesting that a prominent actress who has been speaking out about the objectification of women in the media was a hypocrite because she had posed for some “racy” photos and bared her breasts. They provided pictures to prove it.
They kind of had a point….didn’t they? The woman had bared her breasts for goodness sake! Doesn’t that objectify women? Therefore, the actress is a hypocrite and it necessarily negates her message. Right?
But wait a minute. I didn’t know if I bought that argument. After all, if I pick my nose in public, and I say that picking your nose in public is disgusting, does that mean I’m a hypocrite and, therefore, picking your nose in public is virtuous because I am not? Common sense told me, NO, but I was getting confused, so I watched the video again… naturally.
This time I noticed that the pictures of the actress appeared to be from at least 20 years ago. The one where she was showing her breasts (I assume she was because there was a censor bar across where her breasts would be) looked like it came from a Polaroid; perhaps even one from a long ago spring break. In contrast, the flirtatious, sexual poses of the video makers in pictures on their Facebook and web pages appeared to be recent. Maybe this was why discrimination and objectification of women couldn’t exist. They liked posing for pictures, too. By this time my head was spinning and I decided it was time to dig deeper. I realized I might not know what a hypocrite or hypocrisy was.
A search of the web and my Oxford English Dictionary produced several definitions. Let me just say that for such a weighty term, I was extremely disappointed by the depth, or lack thereof, of the definitions. Although they differed slightly, the gist was that a hypocrite is a person who pretends (acts) or lies about having virtues, morals, or religious beliefs that they do not actually possess or a person who engages in behaviors he or she condemns in others. The “urban” dictionary seems to come closest to a definition that says a hypocrite is someone who does not live up to his ideals; in other words, you can’t have an opinion on whether something is good or bad unless you are perfect yourself. That is illogical, so I’ve decided the urban dictionary is a silly reference for serious topics.
My research also uncovered some rather interesting quotes about hypocrisy. My favorite is this:
“Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.” ~Samuel Johnson (I do believe I shall memorize this one)
My second favorite is this:
“I was not a hypocrite, with one real face and several false ones. I had several faces because I was young and didn’t know who I was or wanted to be.” ~ Milan Kundera, The Joke.
My verdict? A true hypocrite is a person who condemns and tries to shame someone for an action or behavior that they, the accuser, are covertly engaging in at the very moment they are condemning someone else for the behavior. I, personally, don’t believe this is what the actress was doing. Admittedly, there may be nuanced shades of hypocrisy. Perhaps the more colloquial meaning that requires the accuser to be pure in their detraction is becoming the “preferred” definition by the least discerning sector of our society; but I would argue that if the latter is true, it shows just how careless we have become in our speech, in our writing, and in the way we treat each other.
The bottom line is this: Hypocrisy in a person has nothing to do with whether or not an action or belief itself exists or whether that action or belief is virtuous or immoral, good or bad, helpful or destructive. And to try and say it does suggests to me that the person making that argument has a very flimsy case for their opinion or they are vindictive or they are intellectually lazy or a combination of all three. Whatever their motive, it certainly does not demonstrate good character. And it goes without saying, that this is my opinion.