Hypocrisy and life

The ancient Greek word ‘hupokritēs’ is the origin of our word ‘hypocrisy’. It meant to feign or play a part. But apparently the actual words mean ‘speaking from underneath’. Greek actors wore masks to represent the part they were playing and so what they said came from ‘underneath’ their mask. And so, I suppose, Covid has made hypocrites of us all.

But of course words evolve and what was a simple description of how acting was done in ancient times has now taken on a pejorative meaning. To be labelled as a hypocrite is not a good thing. It usually means that you are pretending to be someone you’re not in order to gain advantage in some way.

Perhaps though we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Life requires a certain degree of hypocrisy just for us to get by. I, for instance, although wearing the mask of apparent lawyerly wisdom and confidence, am really only the diffident kid I always used to be. But to get on in life, you sometimes have to adopt a character which is not yours naturally. And, by adopting it, after a while it starts to fit a little bit and then a little bit more. I suppose that, for many, their innate character is suited to the life they wish to lead, but for the rest of us, there is always something of a tension between how we think of ourselves and what we portray to the outside world, whether from behind a mask or not.

Hypocrisy can even be well-intentioned towards the person deceived. An example of this was how I tried to behave towards our old neighbour in Normandy. Mme Leroulier lived in the house next door with her sister-in-law, and had done since the 1950s. Both were peasant-like characters. The sister-in-law, in her late 60's, couldn't read and was obviously not the brightest of people, but she was always active. Obviously Mme Leroulier felt a responsibility for her, despite having lost her husband many years before we knew her.

Madame Leroulier wore old, worn, but clean clothes, was deaf, had few teeth and was in her late seventies when we first got to know her. Her French was spoken in a heavily-accented local dialect. Over the years I got to understand her to some extent, but never very well. She was though always very eager to have a chat, tell me rude jokes which I only half understood and then hide her giggles and her teeth behind her hands. She had no apple trees of her own, but with our permission, gathered apples from our orchard in the Autumn and used them in two ways: rather cheekily to win prizes at the local ‘Fête des Pommes’ (as we discovered one year when we actually visited at the time it was going on), but also to make cider, cider later turned into Calvados with the aid of the mobile still, looking and puffing like an old traction engine, which used to turn up in late October. But, sadly, no more. And no more Calvados brought to us as a thank you for the apples.

But as I was the only one in the family capable of making any sense of what our neighbour was saying, I was designated to speak to her. I have to confess, though, that I rather dreaded my ‘chats’. I smiled a lot when it seemed appropriate and made remarks which I hoped were pertinent, whilst all the time wanting to escape back to my version of normality. So a form of hypocrisy, but perhaps a form required to make society function? Toujours la politesse...

Hypocrisy is though, normally, much frowned upon, even when it involves no particular loss to anyone-else. Take the example of ‘Partygate’. Those who abided by the rules, and so were unable to say a final goodbye in person to their loved ones, are understandably livid at the deliberate failure by those in government to abide by those same rules. They are even more upset because our glorious leader has refused even to accept that he did anything wrong, and this despite all the records of his presence at various of the parties, not to mention that they took place at his gaff.

But the obvious hypocrisy did not actually cause the anguish of losing a loved one nor, if known about at the time, would it have reduced the need to take very great care not to allow sources of infection (relatives) to come into care homes or hospitals. That though doesn’t diminish the anger justifiably felt by those who abided by the rules. I say justifiably, even though it is purely an emotional reaction granted the lack of loss. But it seems that resentment of hypocrisy is hard-wired into us. And it is fairly obvious that being tricked into wrongly believing or doing something would have a significant evolutionary disadvantage. In order to maximise our chances of survival, we need to see the world as it is and not how someone-else deliberately and wrongly portrays it to be. And so an ability to engage in critical thinking has its advantages here too.

But hypocrisy without cost to the onlooker is fairly unusual. It is usually of significant benefit to the practitioner at the cost of the ‘mark’. Con-artists pretending to be rich, but, strangely, just at that moment in need of a loan or investment capital, prey on people they’ve impressed, whether personally or by their apparent success as business people.

Love can of course make people blind to being taken for a ride. But narcissism can be equally effective in persuading people to believe the story designed to part them from their money.

Most Ponzi schemes depend on peoples willingness to see an impossibly high return on capital as a sign of business acumen by the person in charge, but mainly they see it as their own brilliance in finding that rare investment opportunity, one usually only open to ‘a select few’. Of course, we mainly refer to this sort of action as fraud, but it nonetheless depends on hypocrisy, on feigning something to be true.

Typically though we look to church leaders and politicians for the main examples of hypocrisy. The many evangelical churches which have sprung up, mainly in America, based on the idea that God will reward many times over those who give unstintingly to the church, are a testament to how a charismatic pastor or priest can turn religion on its head in order to persuade the faithful to contribute to to his far from monastic lifestyle .

Indeed many would say, somewhat unfairly, that hypocrisy is a defining characteristic of both religious leaders and politicians. But it is certainly true that Private Eye constantly exposes examples of flagrant hypocrisy. Politicians tell us that they are on the side of the man in the street, whilst, in many cases, lining their pockets with consultancy fees. The biggest form of hypocrisy we have seen recently though is the failure by the government to change the law in order to expose ownership of assets by billionaires who are able to hide their ownership behind shell companies and trusts. They have said that they will do it and have even claimed to have done it when they enacted some very weak provisions which have achieved... precisely nothing.

Why the lack of action? Obviously to persuade multi-millionaires that the Conservatives are the party to support. But all of this has now turned very sour because it can be seen to have promoted the very existence of the dictatorship which is Russia. And in turn it has persuaded Putin that the West is malleable and will ultimately allow him to get away with aggression against surrounding democratic countries. Finally the government is starting to do something, but until I see actions rather than warm words, I shall still believe that hypocrisy is alive and well - and very dangerous - in our government.

Paul Buckingham

31 March 2022

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