Smoke and Mirrors

Posted on May 30, 2011


Yesterday I taught a lesson on hypocrisy. It’s a subject that I always dance around gingerly, because the only way we can see it is in others, which is rather a good definition of the blasted vice. That makes it nearly impossible to find or give examples without implicating oneself – not a hugely productive activity if one is advocating its elimination. Hypocrisy is closely related to irony (and isn’t that ironic?) in that the party suffering is by definition unaware of their private disconnect between reality and perception.

I ended up focusing on the perception-building cycle of growth, including self-effacing but kindly honest evaluation, commitment to improvement, and service to others. In religious parlance, we simply say, humility, repentance, forgiveness, and mercy, not coincidentally the first four steps in the Beatitudes’ pathway to personal perfection. Interesting how often that comes up as a treatment for what ails us.

The definition, criticizing someone else for doing something we are doing, or in any of a hundred ways representing ourselves as fundamentally different from who we actually are, is pretty easy to grasp. (Etymology of the Greek work hypokrites is “a stage actor, pretender, dissembler.”) The youngest child can spot a hypocrite from a mile away and will be the first to cry, “Unfair!” Children are natural black-and-white thinkers, a politically incorrect thing to be as adults. Interestingly enough, they accomplish what adults seldom seem to, in their ability to analytically recognize dissembling but still appreciate other values in the person who’s doing it.

The reality, being who we represent and representing who we actually are, is much more complex. If we teach, either our children or others in our stewardship, that one should be honest in all things but we mindlessly take the pen at the grocery store that we used to sign our check, are we hypocritical or imperfect? If we are unintentionally hypocritical, as we all at one time or another are, does that imply that we should never speak in absolutes (i.e. honesty is right and dishonesty is wrong)? Does that imply that we can only judge between right and wrong when we are perfect?

I believe this is the essence of the clarification to the “judge not that ye be not judged” advocation. “Righteous judgment” is the pursuit of our life, allowing us to see increasingly clearly through our own weaknesses and imperfections a way that will bring happiness and peace. Much less an act of criticism, it is an ability to perceive. And it takes a lot of courage.

Benjamin F. Martin said (in France in 1938), “Hypocrisy is the art of affecting qualities for the purpose of pretending to an undeserved virtue. Because individuals and institutions and societies most often live down to the suspicions about them, hypocrisy and its accompanying equivocations underpin the conduct of life. Imagine how frightful truth unvarnished would be.”

Can a beginning student claim equally to the title “pianist” as a virtuoso? We are perfected beings in practice, so it stands to reason that hypocrisy is at some level a failure to be moving in a direction of positive growth, not a failure to have achieved the perfection we seek. I’m reminded that a few of the Pharisees, the one group Jesus was willing to openly condemn, made huge, courageous steps to grow personally, and over time became friends and protectors of those whom they had formerly persecuted.

I am reading an eye-opening book that is adding substantially to my understanding of life and my work by exposing, within society and within me, prejudices and fears that distort our perception of one another and encourage us to make thin excuses and dodging justifications of our true thinking. I am understanding why there is a statistical correlation between things like poverty and obesity, and finally seeing that the causal relationship is actually reversed from the popularly-accepted “scientific evidence.”

I am understanding that a society’s choice of pariah says a great deal about what is wrong with it. And, as with any medical condition, the beginning of treatment is accurate diagnosis. Hypocrisy being among the most destructive of the inaccurate diagnoses, quiet introspection is likely a valuable tool.

Walt Kelly, a cartoonist, famously said that “we have met the enemy, and he is us,” satirizing Commodore Perry’s (of the war of 1812) popular quote, “we have met the enemy and he is ours.” Some combination of the two is probably the larger truth.

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