We detest it in our politicians. We expose it in our enemies. We scorn religious leaders because of it. And yet, we deny that it exists within ourselves.
The common definition of hypocrisy is “saying one thing and doing another.” The American Heritage Dictionary states that it is “the professing of beliefs or virtues one does not possess.” Whether we like it or not, I believe most of us are hypocritical occasionally, often without realizing it. How many of us have talked about helping the homeless and then lied about having spare change when approached on the street? I know I have, but rationalization comes to my rescue: “Another buck toward the price of a bottle. That’s not helping him.” There may or may not be truth to that rationalization; I never take the time to find out. This is not the right thing to do, but I have done it anyway. There have been times I have given change, as well.
Are all my hypocritical acts wrong? Frankly, I think it depends on the mood I am in, and I suspect mood and circumstances have more to do with hypocrisy than we might think. It is possible to make a statement or commitment with all good intentions, then later say something entirely different due to a change in the situation or mood. For example, when I was still in secondary school, my best friend and I promised that we would always seek each other’s advice when we were in a bind. This continued without fail for years, until I found a woman that I decided I was going to marry. I started confiding in her more than my friend, and when he confronted me about it, I explained that I would be spending the rest of my life with this woman (or so I thought) and that I felt I obligated to share the most important things in my life with her first. My statement was the beginning of several years’ stress and distance in our friendship.
Were my actions hypocritical? Strictly speaking, yes. Were they understandable? Again, yes, but not necessarily from the viewpoint of the person hurt by them. My situation had changed since we had made those childhood promises and my responsibilities changed with it, so I had to do what I thought was right, despite the pain I knew it would cause. Sometimes, it is necessary to reverse position and risk hypocrisy in order to maintain your own integrity!
This does not mean that hypocrisy should be used as a weapon. It may result from a decision, but should not be the force behind it. When it is, rationalizations or excuses are almost sure to be present. “I said this, but it does not apply to me for X reason” is a dangerous statement to make, and the motives behind it must be carefully scrutinized before we make it. One method I use for determining whether my rationalization has gotten out of control is to pretend that I am someone else watching me make this statement. Does it fit with the person I want to be known as? Are the reasons compelling to someone outside my position, or do they look like justifications for other action? Do my actions seem childish? By separating myself from the situation for a moment, I gain some distance and get a better perspective so I can decide whether to go ahead with a seemingly hypocritical decision. I try to remember that reason is an ally, but rationalizations can lead to grave mistakes.
Of course, I may just be trying to convince myself of all this ….
(I am happy to report that my friend and I finally put the distance behind us and are now as close as ever, despite the fact that our primary confidants are now our spouses.)