Sunday, March 11, 2012

Brief Reflection On The Value Of Hypocrisy

A close associate of mine's favorite past time is to gather and gloat over examples of hypocrisy committed by self proclaimed social and religious conservatives. Every time a "family value conservative" or evangelical preacher is caught in an extramarital affair or homosexual dalliance is presented as proof positive of the innate defects of social conservatism and its purveyors. Paradoxically, hypocrisy is a highly undesirable trait for individuals to possess, on a broader social level, it can be viewed as a "necessary evil." To start off with, just because an individual falls short of a professed virtue, either through temptation or insincerity, does not negate its value or utility. For example, just because Al Gore flies around the globe in a private jet, spewing out green house gases, does not undermine the value of his environmental message, it merely casts his personal character into question. And by definition, the only way an individual or society could be free of hypocrisy would be to significantly lower our standards, so that we can ensure that they are met. Take the issue of marital infidelity; I recall a discussion with an Italian client of mine who was amazed that some Americans were concerned with former President Clinton's infidelity, because " when our leaders openly parade their mistresses in public, it barely raises an eyebrow." He went on to state that, "America is filled with hypocrites, because they too cheat on their spouses but simply do not fess up to it." 

This begs the question: would American Society be better off if we purged hypocrisy from our midst by not promoting marital (or any other) standards that many of us fail to live up to? I would respond "no" to that premise, simply because for many people, even the perceived values and behavior of our neighbors can shape our own, even if they sharply differ from the reality that exists behind closed doors. For example, if the members of a community believed that their neighbors all gave to charity, they would be more inclined to do so too, out of fear of gossip and social isolation. But, if out of a distaste for hypocrisy or general indifference, a community ceased extolling certain values and chastising certain vices, the rate of negative behaviors would surely increase. So, in closing, the hypocrisy of private citizens and politicians speak poorly of their character, but not of the values that they fail to live up to. Lowering the bar of acceptable conduct  as a means of eliminating hypocrisy is a juvenile endeavor that erodes the social capital of communities and countries alike.

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