“Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims). ”
Does hypocrisy matter?
We know how the worst dictators and warlords love to wave their bloodied fingers at Israel. Yes—always guilty of not being the absolutely perfect state, we watch in dismay as so-called defenders of human rights focus intolerably on Israel and ignore situations elsewhere.
One might argue, though, that we need to separate message from messenger. Yet very few claims are so simple that we can dismiss motivational bias as completely insignificant. Priorities do matter. And selective concern, let alone selective enforcement (like boycotts, etc.), often indicate more animus than justice. As such, we rightfully suspect claims made if we discover ulterior motives. For there is something that genuinely irks us when we meet the imbalance we recognize as hypocrisy.
All the more so in the realm of morality, although motive may very well be different. Few, I believe, accept the apocryphal excuse given in the story about philosopher Bertrand Russel caught having an affair. You know, how no one expects the mathematician to resemble a triangle, so why ask for proper behavior from a teacher of ethics. Because we do expect something different. We are bothered.
A moral stance is more than a statement. It is a call to act in a certain way. And when merely uttered, it becomes so much less than even that: A hollowed out caricature of verbal flotsam, so insignificant that even those who utter it pay no heed to the message. This holds whether the hypocrite comes to praise Caesar or to bury us. Hypocrisy’s dark tentacles poison all they touch, deforming art into artifice from which we turn away.
None of us is perfect. (I certainly have failed to live up to my own ideals more than once). But those who set out to preach—about the grandeur of Jewish life, of the beauty of living in accord with a particularist ethic of commandments—while living their own lives counter to the most basic of mitzvot are hypocrites.
Yes, life is a complicated mess. But there is a world of difference between living one’s life—as messy as it may be (mamash nebech)—and climbing up on a soap box to tell others to listen. Regardless if the preaching is true and good, or not.
For hypocrisy cheapens the message. It attenuates any moral force speech might have. It turns the sublime into the ridiculous—as Ricky Gervais deftly pointed out to the Hollywood “woke” just the other week. People are gifted a rightful excuse to walk away unmoved, with little need to consider whether a message has merit on its own. And if the message is important, then that’s a shame.
Hannah Arendt called hypocrisy the “vice of vices” as it alone disallows the important virtue of integrity. Anybody is free to sacrifice their integrity as they see fit. Some do for fame, some for fortune. But anybody who aspires to lead should know that people of integrity are apt not to keenly follow those whose own has been forfeit.
And more than that—as the conservative author, Yuval Levin, recently argued—the dissolution of a society is tied to loss of faith in the institutions which bind them together. Our institutions—political, religious, military or judicial—aim at “fostering an ethic built around some idea of integrity. That’s why we trust the institution and the people who compose it.”
Hypocritical leadership destroys not just personal integrity, but institutional integrity as well. And when that goes, so does any public faith—and rightly so. A disaster for organizations or institutions trying to move their agenda forward.
Yes. Life is a complicated mess. But sometimes those in complicated situations need to heed Emerson’s advice.