Hypocrisy rampant on a field of duplicity

hyprocisy word on background of reddish texture

Hypocrisy used to have a bad odor. When someone was accused of being a hypocrite they would either deny they were or try somehow to free themselves of any justification for being called a hypocrite.

However that seems no longer to be the case, at least with people in the public eye. Some people staunchly support and defend one set of principles or practices, then oppose them and deny their truth or validity when that is more convenient. Classic hypocrisy. You would think everyone would know that. Know what hypocrisy is, recognize it when they see it, and at the very least try to hide their own hypocrisy if and when it crops up.

Three questions . . .

One, what is it that makes hypocrisy such an undesirable characteristic in a person?

Being now in numbering mode and all, I would have to say there are three qualities that give hypocrisy its badness:

1. Hypocrisy is unfair.

Fairness ranks pretty high on my scale of desirable qualities and hypocrisy is nothing if not the epitome of not-fairness, of being unfair. To use a sports example: the height of hypocrisy, and therefore unfairness, would be a sporting event where there was one set of rules for the home team, and another set of tougher rules for the opponent. No good American would accept that, so why is hypocrisy so broadly engaged and accepted these days?

“Playing by the rules” has become a common mantra. We want everyone to play by the rules, and we want the same set of rules for everyone. Basically that means no fair rigging the rules to suit your agenda. We don’t like cheaters, and we don’t like hypocrites because hypocrisy is a form of cheating.

2. Hypocrisy is dishonest. 

How can you trust someone who thinks it is okay to be unfair? If a hypocrite can take opposing positions on one issue, there is no telling when they will do it again. When the only reliable aspect of a person’s value system is that he will assuredly act in his own interests despite how bad the behavior is for someone else, that person is surely an undesirable. Undesirable as a friend, undesirable as a mate, undesirable as an employee or employer, and so on. Liars don’t make good anythings in the Western canon of human value.

3. Hypocrisy is insulting.

No matter the good values or qualities of a hypocrite, none of them can be counted on. If a person can hold opposing values on one subject, they can do it with others. That makes everything they say potentially duplicitous and devoid of logical reason. Their story varies from one audience to the next, from one situation to the next. Such treatment is an insult. There are more than enough insults to life on this planet without having to put up with hypocrites.

So, yeah, hypocrisy is a bad characteristic in a human being. More negatives could be generated but for me these three are enough to put hypocrisy clearly in the undesirable column.

Two, what’s going on in the hypocrite’s mind?

Does the hypocrite know what hypocrisy is?

The answer to this question depends, for the most part, on education. Some of the most egregious hypocrisy I’ve witnessed in the last decade or so has been perpetrated by Republican politicians. Most of them have been through the educational system, many with advanced or professional degrees, and must surely know the fundamental dictates of logic. They certainly must know what hypocrisy is.
On the other hand there are the woefully under-educated classes in America who probably slept through the class on hypocrisy. They probably know not what they do when they hypocrasize.New word. Neologism, if you please. You first saw it here. These are the people who, when accused of being hypocritical, probably respond with something like, “I can criticize whatever I want. This’s a free country!”

Does he know when he is being a hypocrite?

Is he aware of his hypocrisy? Formal logic is one of those categories of knowledge that is very hard to come by. I taught argumentation and debate at both the undergraduate and graduate level and I all-too-infrequently sensed that very many of the students were getting it. That might have been because of limitation in my teaching skills, but there is no doubt that in general students don’t enjoy, and certainly few grasp, the fundamentals of formal logic.

To avoid hypocrisy requires the tools of logic. One of the key ingredients is the syllogism. Syllogistic reasoning is deductive and involved in something like this (sort of): All human being are mammals. Mervin is a human being. Therefore Mervin is a mammal. Pretty simple stuff, and true. If you are reading this, take it from me, you are a mammal. Okay, if this statement jimmied your jammer, you are a clever devil and indeed onto something. Nothing in my example syllogism said anything about reading. We would need another premise or two to get to that. But you know it is true. If you don’t…were you one of my students?

If there is self-awareness, is the hypocrisy a strategy?

Not being aware of their hypocrisy, or that hypocrisy destroys credibility among those who are aware of it and despise it, is likely existent only among people with less education. Those more educated are likely to know what they are doing. That is, they know they are talking out of both sides of their mouth. Thus it must be a strategy.

At this point I am relying primarily on logic and reason; I have no empirical evidence about who does and who does not understand hypocrisy, nor can I speak with any scientific authority on what self-aware hypocrites are up to. I can only guess. But of course my guess is predicated upon nearly a lifetime of observing, studying and experimenting with human beings’ beliefs, attitudes and behavior at the highest formal research levels.

If you don’t have any idea what I mean by this, then it would not help you to know. So here’s my guess, and it breaks down into two parts:

Part 1. Human beings have an almost infinite ability to delude themselves.

It never ceases to amaze me just how completely some people can blind themselves to inconvenient facts. They can “fail” to see their hypocrisy relative to two opposing positions they hold, although they may be singularly astute when it comes to detecting hypocrisy in others.

Case in point. I was once part of a faculty that included one of the world’s foremost authorities on human communication and also an authority on scientific research methods. God help any of his graduate students who did not adhere rigorously to scientifically demonstrable evidence and the strictest use of logic and evidence in theory construction and hypothesis testing.

Yet this world renowned scholar and scientist was an unreconstituted, born-again Christian. In his professional life he could accept only a rigorously lawful universe in which everything was lawful and, if you knew enough, predictable. Yet in his religious life, steeped in Christian theology, anything was possible. Virgins can have babies, the dead can come back to life, magic is real, and so on; his “lawful universe” was put on hold when it came to his personal theology. This man epitomized the highest form of hypocrisy, one in which two mutually inconsistent forms of systematic thinking can exist side by side.

It is obviously possible for some people at least to compartmentalize various intellectual domains. Especially if one of those domains is the person’s religion. Somehow “religion” or “religious belief” has, in the Western world anyway, taken on a kind of untouchable status that makes it immune to criticism or questioning. It exists in a different part of the person’s intellect and is not subject to the same requirements as other internal belief systems.

This is how the scientific or religious hypocrite is untroubled by what would otherwise be sheer hypocrisy. In the mind of the true believer It is somehow okay for God to crap in his own nest; the world has to be lawfully predictable for us but anything is fair game for him. Or her.

My guess, part 2.

This involves what might be called strategic hypocrisy. It can be found in many forms perpetrated by just about everyone who is in any kind of authority position. It is practiced most egregiously by politicians. In my experience, when someone engages in strategic hypocrisy, they are counting on their audience not knowing about their other (oppositional) beliefs. Or proclamations.

In some cases — and we see this most obviously in extremists who believe only what they want to — it makes no difference that the person’s hypocrisy is obvious and publicly known. As long as the intended audience, the audience most important to the ends and goals of the speaker, determinedly will not believe the other side of the story. To them the part they don’t want to believe is fake news or its equivalent, so the hypocrite is safe. He can say one thing to one audience and the opposite to another. His auditors have been verbally drugged, either through propaganda or as a product of their own devising. They are the willfully gullible (but only by the ones they have been conditioned to follow).

Three, What’s to be done about hypocrisy?

In some respects hypocrisy is built into the human psyche so it is never going to be eliminated. But ignoring it is not an option when it is detrimental to a cause or relationship or a child’s psychological and moral development.

Exposure of hypocrisy is the best tactic in situations where that will work.

When a hypocrite knows he is being watched, and that his hypocrisy will be exposed if he engages in it, he is much less likely to be hypocritical. Let the hypocrite know you are watching him and it might change his behavior.

Unfortunately there are many situations in which exposure will not work. Another strategy is to sneak up on the hypocrite through successive probes of his latitude of acceptance.

Before getting into that, though, here is the absolute worst way to convince anyone of anything: Make your first statement something with which the other person strongly disagrees. Whenever you make such a statement, regardless of whether it is correct or not, you effectively turn off the other person’s perception of anything you say after that.

It is almost always a bad idea to make strong oppositional statements to anyone you want to convince of something.

Here is an example from an article on the pros and cons of COVID-19 vaccination, written by a medical doctor who bills himself as “an expert in the field of preventative [sic] cardiology and has published seven books. He gives lectures nationally and internationally.”

“It is my opinion, not shared by an ignorant, ill-informed few, that vaccination was the greatest advance in medicine of the last century.”

I don’t know what kind of cardiologist this guy is, but he knows bupkis about persuasion. His very first sentence not only confronts head-on anyone who might not agree with him, it also insults them by calling them ignorant and ill-informed. The only people who will read beyond that faux pas are his choir.

Graphic showing latitude of acceptance for Covid-19 vaccination.

As I said, approaching another person’s belief structure with a view to changing it can be done through his latitude of acceptance. Do an Internet search for this term and you will come up with a lot of information, but here it is in a nutshell: The latitude of acceptance is a window of receptivity to certain ideas. Here is an example using receptivity/opposition to Covid-19 vaccination.

The latitude of acceptance for this person begins at “A few vaccinations might be acceptable for healthy adults” and ends at “Vaccinations are okay for healthy adults. Beginning your campaign of persuasion with anything stronger will be immediately rejected. Plus, and this is important, rejection tends to be sticky and hang around for a long time. So be cautious and avoid outright rejection.

Very often there is no window of opportunity to shift a belief or attitude; the person is closed off to anything related to the topic. Sticking with the example of vaccination acceptance, suppose even the mention of vaccination was not in any way acceptable. In this case you will have to go around back and sneak in another way. by finding a bridge topic with a latitude of acceptance.

Say for instance the person has a pet dog of which he is quite fond. The dog periodically requires a rabies shot. This is, approached gently, a possible opening for the discussion of vaccinations, beginning with the dog’s and advancing eventually to vaccinations for people. This is a bridge topic that might, with a soft and gradual approach, lead to the acceptance of vaccinations for people.

This vaccination issue, by the way, is not simply an academic exercise, a mute point, or strictly hypothetical. Being the reasonable, intelligent person you are — you are, after all, smart enough to be reading this — you might think hey, why wouldn’t someone want a Covid-19 vaccine? So far over half a million people have died from the virus. But of the 75,000 people who were vaccinated, a month later less than five percent had contracted the virus, none were hospitalized, and none died.

Yet there remain about a third of American adults who either don’t want the vaccine or remain undecided about whether they will get it. That’s over a hundred million people on whom you can hone your persuasion skills.

If you agree, that is, that everyone needs to be immunized to bring this virus under control. If you are not convinced, please bear this in mind: Scientists, epidemiologists, physicians and other healthcare workers — virtually all (99.6 percent) say everyone must be immunized before any of us is really safe from this deadly disease. If you are not in one of the groups I just listed, you have only two choices. One, accept the word of highly educated, trained, dedicated specialists, or two, take advice from someone who probably would not know a virus from a Quonset hut.

Your choice. Make it as if your life depended on it. Because it just might.

No, I have not forgotten that this article is about hypocrisy. To bring it to a close let’s consider just one example of extreme hypocrisy related to the Covid-19 vaccine. Most parents claim to totally love their children and say they would do anything to protect them and keep them safe. Yet some are willing to withhold vaccination from their children based on what Derek Thompson of The Atlantic calls “a constellation of motivations, insecurities, reasonable fears, and less reasonable conspiracy theories.” (What Thompson calls “reasonable fears” are not so reasonable when they are dissected.)

Such parents should be put away and their children raised by more reasonable folk. Unless you can bring them around to a sensible position vis-à-vis vaccination.

There is a lot more that could be said about hypocrisy and ways to deal with it. So this article is certainly far from exhaustive. But it does perhaps give you some indications of the psycho-dynamics involved and ways to approach a deeper understanding of what hypocrisy is, where it springs from, and tactics for dealing with it.

As a postscript let me say that the subject of hypocrisy would be worthy of consideration by any academic or scientist looking for a research area. It should appeal to many disciplines, including philosophy (especially from a logic perspective),  and any of the social or behavioral sciences.

charles e. henderson, ph.d.