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The False and Lazy Charge of Hypocrisy

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Hypocrisy is a favorite accusation in our society, the charge tossed about with carefree abandon by Left, Right, and the nonpolitical. No one has ever died at the hands of hypocrisy, yet it’s a deadly accusation, widely treated as among the greatest of evils. A mere accusation of hypocrisy can halt a debate by silencing the accused, forcing him off-topic to defend himself against the tangential charge of hypocrisy. This is how and why so many talking-head shows quickly degenerate into everyone accusing everyone else of hypocrisy, with nothing of substance actually discussed.

Most everyone agrees that a speaker’s moral character is irrelevant to the validity of his argument, and yet in contravention to this rule of Logic, most everyone also regards hypocrites as unworthy advocates.

The Congressman who has an affair is deemed unfit to advocate “family values,” regardless of his legislation’s merits. The celebrity who builds on her country estate is deemed unfit to promote environmental conservation. The parent who smokes is deemed unfit to counsel against drugs. All may (or may not) have good ideas, but presumably, we should not listen to them and decide on the merits, because they are “hypocrites.”

Yet the accusers are often guilty of worse than hypocrisy: dishonesty, disingenuousness, and intellectual laziness.

Intellectual laziness, because charging hypocrisy allows the accuser to avoid the difficulty of defending an argument. It is intellectually easier to accuse an opponent of hypocrisy, and leave it at that.

Disingenuousness, because often their hidden motive is to avoid the risk of challenging a popular position. It is politically safer to accuse an opponent of hypocrisy, and leave it at that.

And also dishonesty, because the charge of hypocrisy is rarely accurate. It has been bandied about so recklessly — on talk radio and daytime TV, in high schools and colleges, among pundits and activists — that “hypocrite” has come to mean: “I don’t like you. You’re bad. And I don’t want to have to defend that position.”

What is hypocrisy?

Rather than look to a dictionary, I’ve applied a Socratic method, considering the word’s usage and implications in varied situations, and I’ve concluded that “hypocrisy” comprises Four Elements, all necessary for a person to be guilty as charged.

A hypocrite is someone who: (1) advocates a standard, (2) publicly applies that standard to himself, (3) fails to meet that standard, and (4) hides or denies his failure.

All Four Elements are required, yet hypocrisy is often confused with Element # 3 alone: Failing to meet one’s own standards. The Christian minister who cheats on his wife. The rich liberal who opposes school vouchers but enrolls his children in private school.

Failing to meet one’s own standards is not hypocrisy.

If an obese woman advocates dieting, but laments the difficulty of sticking to one, is she a hypocrite? Of course not. She has failed to meet her standards, to follow her own advice. But she is not a hypocrite because Element # 4 is missing. She never claimed to stick to her diet.

Thus, a Christian minister who routinely confesses to being a sinner (as many Christians do), or a rich liberal who laments that public schools are just not good enough for his children, would not be hypocrites. They advocate certain standards, yet admit to falling short.

Falling short of a standard should be no bar to advocating a high standard, so long as one is open about his own shortcomings. Were it otherwise, smokers would be deemed unfit to warn children against tobacco, lest they be “hypocrites.” Yet a man who fails to meet his own standards, rather than being a hypocrite, is often the best advocate of a different course of action.

Sometimes the best advice is: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

(Accurate definitions aside, one practical problem of defining hypocrisy as failing to meet one’s own standards is that it discourages high standards. Under this false definition, a man who merely meets 80% of his high standards is judged worse than a man of no standards. “At least he’s not a hypocrite!” Yes, at the very least.)

Hypocrisy is also confused with double standards. Yet once again:

Double standards are not hypocrisy.

Dad goes to bed later than the bedtime he sets for his child. Does this double standard make dad a hypocrite? Of course not — because Element #2 is missing. Dad never applied his child’s bedtime to himself. Indeed, he would freely admit to anyone who asks that his child’s bedtime does not apply to him.

A mere double standard is not hypocrisy.

A movie star advocates a ban on gun ownership, but then obtains a carry permit. Is she a hypocrite? Yes, if she suggested that all should be banned from owning a gun. But if she publicly claims that celebrities are entitled to a gun privilege denied to others, then no. She’d be arrogant and elitist, but not a hypocrite.

The validity of a double standard is irrelevant to the issue of hypocrisy. A double standard may be just and rational, or unjust and irrational. Hypocrisy flows from the attempt to hide or deny a double standard, not from the merits of a double standard.

A young black militant charges an older black conservative with hypocrisy for attacking affirmative action, yet benefiting from it when he was young. Is the black conservative a hypocrite? Not if he says affirmative action was appropriate thirty years ago, but no longer. (This is merely a double standard.) Nor if he admitted benefiting from affirmative action, but claims he was wrong to do so. (This is merely failing to meet one’s own standards.)

Likewise, a black militant who admits to a double standard in assessing white and black racism (because “whites have power”) is not a hypocrite. He may (or may not) be wrong, elitist, or arrogant. But his open admission of a double standard absolves him of hypocrisy.

And finally, what really is so awful about hypocrisy?

Recall the adage: hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. It most offends adolescents, adolescent mindsets, and those who live comfortably untouched by serious evils.

Hypocrisy is not nice. But it is not genocide, murder, or rape. Nor even turnstile jumping. On a scale of evils, it’s a petty offense. Most everyone commits hypocrisy at one time or another, just as most everyone speeds on a highway. Speeding endangers more lives, yet hypocrisy upsets more people. Go figure.

If more people understood hypocrisy’s Four Elements, they’d spot the many false charges. Then pundits and activists would stop hurling baseless accusations. We’d dampen 90% of the noise on radio and TV shoutfests. And then perhaps we can have more substantive discussions in the news media.


This article originally appeard on Thomas M. Sipos’s books include the anti-Communist satire, Vampire Nation, the revisionist satire of 1980s yuppies, Manhattan Sharks, and an anthology of horror fact & fiction, Halloween Candy.

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About Thomas M. Sipos

  • Eric Olsen

    Fascinating and important distinctions – thanks!

  • Mike Finley

    I would have taken a slightly different tack. Instead of saying “Hypocrisy is not the failure to live up to one’s own standards” (I think it is exactly that), I call attention to how un-special hypocrisy is.

    Of course we fail to live up to our own standards. It is the most natural thing in the world to be hypocrites, like breathing and defecating.

    The only way out of it is by publicly espousing such low standards (think of a famously permissive person like Rousseau or an unapologetic criminal like G. Gordon Liddy) that hypocrisy is unlikely.

    I also agree that there is a public element to hypocrisy. But that is simply because we don’t know a person’s standards until he or she states what they are. Secret crimes don’t come back to bite us in the butt the way public crimes do.

    So I agree that the charge of hypocrisy is often “cooked up,” as we see with Trent Lott’s remarks, and the cant of those who are calling him on the carpet.

    Of course, his problem is less hypocrisy than fitness for office. Far from being a hypocrite, he is simply a man with offensive standards.

    Should we castigate those who jump on the bandwagon? Again, they are hypocrites, unless they have led lives of improbable virtue and consistency.

    But the greater good is probably to rid ourselves of this loathsome creature because his naked chauvinisms offend even us garden variety hypocrites.