We’re All Hypocrites, It’s Just a Matter of Scale

The Modern Survival Guide #49

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And a serious moment of maturity for me was a revelation some years ago that I sometimes act in a manner that contradicts my beliefs. Not only that, I think that’s pretty normal for most people (most of the time), and it’s generally accepted as a normal human thing (most of the time). Hypocrisy is a common trait, but sometimes it’s more acceptable than others, and that’s what this article is about. Let’s start with a definition:

Hypocrisy: the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.

We are, all of us, hypocrites. It’s unavoidable. There are too many counter-indicative philosophies and expectations running around in our culture, education, and institutions for us to be otherwise. In this article we’ll look at why hypocrisy is bad, why we become hypocrites, why it’s hard not to be seen as a hypocrite, and how to stop being a hypocrite about the big things.

Why Hypocrisy is Bad

Ok, let’s get this out of the way: hypocrisy is bad in general, m’kay? It degrades social trust, reducing our ability to work together, communicate, and enjoy each other’s company. If I can’t trust you to do things the way you say you think things ought to be done, I can’t trust you with much because I know that you’re either (1) a liar, (2) an idiot, (3) ignorant, (4) not self-aware, or (5) some combination of those things.

Being a hypocrite hurts you because (most of the time) the trustworthy people are the ones who get the friends, deals, and social support that help the most in life. That’s how our various human societies evolved — even the corrupt ones. The whole point of a good corrupt official is that once you buy him, he stays bought.

But it’s interesting to note that most of the time, you won’t actually see many consequences from being a hypocrite. Oh sure, people will talk about you behind your back, but really, that’s going to happen anyway. And people might not trust you with specific things, but you’ll probably never notice, since it’s hard to notice when things don’t happen. I’d guess that, as long as you keep your hypocrisy to small things, better than 90% of the time it goes unnoticed and relatively unpunished.

However, while there may not be many consequences under normal circumstances, there are three big areas where hypocrisy can mess up your life: in your business relationships, in your romantic relationships, and online.

  1. Business is more than just production, marketing, sales, and accounting; it’s also about trust. Knowing who to trust in your business relationships is arguably more important than knowing which of your friends you can trust. You can always get new friends. Business options are often more limited. Being a hypocrite in your business dealings is a good way to ruin business relationships, which is a good way to ruin your lifestyle.
  2. Being a hypocrite in your romantic relationship is a good way to eventually end a romantic relationship. Your partner sees you at your best and worst, that’s true, and you can expect a certain amount of forgiveness. But remember the bit earlier where we talked about the impact of hypocrisy on trust? And what do you suppose romantic relationships are based on? Yeah. This is the kind of thing that builds up a reservoir of resentment, which can eventually boil over.
  3. We live in the information age. That means that it’s always possible for someone to blast out your hypocrisy to the world on Facebook, post YouTube videos, throw a pic on Instagram, or just tell a rambling story about you on Reddit. Your privacy is tenuous at best, your personal affairs are only a tantrum away from being posted online, and getting shamed online can wreck your life. So it’s best to not do things that just scream “post my misdeeds” if the consequence is that all of your friends and family will see you being a hypocritical ass.

These things are pretty bad. So why are so many people such blatant, ridiculous hypocrites?

Why You’re a Hypocrite

Part of the reason why hypocrisy is so prevalent, I think, is that there is a difference between concepts that are easily expressible vs. what we actually think about a subject. That can lead to perceived hypocritical actions.

For example, there are an enormous number of Christians who support the War on Terror, which involves killing quite a number of people. We might recall that one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not kill.” This seems like an enormous contradiction, and if taken at face value it absolutely is. I think most people, though, would say that they think this injunction applies only to unjust killings (and there’s a fair amount of Biblical scholarship to support that view). In their own minds, these folks might quite happily line up the War on Terror with “justified” killing, and therefore mark it off as a non-issue.¹

To take a more close-to-home example, most people seem to think that lying is a generally bad thing. Most people also lie a lot. What are we to make of this? Well, I think that if pressed, most people would give some variation on the answer that they really only think lying is bad if it is done with malicious intent. By that rubric, lying is bad if the question is, “Is this your baby, for whom you have not been paying child support?” while lying isn’t inherently bad if the question is, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” Or at least that seems to be the common consensus.

What both of these examples reveal is that there’s complex moral calculus going on under the hood in many cases of hypocrisy. People repeat one apparently simple set of moral instructions, but actually follow a more complicated rubric.

There’s also a time factor at play. People change. It’s really that simple. If you ask someone for their opinion in year 1, and come back to them in year 5, there’s a pretty good chance that they will have changed their mind about something. They just might not have told you about that in the intervening period. So a lot of cases of perceived hypocrisy really just boil down to a lack of communication, coupled with intellectual drift.

And finally, of course, all of us have moral failings. Taking the moral path usually means personal sacrifice at some point, and at some point each one of us will refuse that sacrifice, particularly when we feel threatened. And then we’ll be hypocrites. This is an outcome to be avoided, but sooner or later we all fall. The trick is to get back up again.

Why It’s Hard to Not Be Seen as a Hypocrite

Look, this doesn’t sound hard: say what you mean, mean what you say, do things in accordance with the things you say. Poof, you’re not a hypocrite.

So why don’t people do this?

Well, I think a lot of us just don’t think about the comparative morality of our statements and actions all that much. It’s really easy to not think about things, after all. I’m not thinking about quantum physics right now. See how easy that was? Same thing with hypocrisy; unless it’s impacting your life in very tangible ways, it’s not something you’re likely to notice on your own.

And in any case I think a lot of us lack the assertiveness to be able to stand up in public and say something like “I actually don’t think that a lot of lies are terrible things!” That’s the kind of thing that causes folks to give you the side eye. There is enormous social pressure to conform to standard-issue moral tropes.

Not to mention the inescapable reality that we’re often in different situations of social pressure that might engender different reactions, and we don’t always have time to do a personal audit of our moral map to see whether an opinion we are asked to agree with right now will result in our being labeled a hypocrite later. Pressure isn’t good for deep thought.

There’s also the problem of memory. Not being a hypocrite means that you have to remember what you said and be consistent with actions across years. I have trouble remembering what I had for lunch on Monday last week. It is probably unfair at some level to judge people for statements and actions that are decades apart, but people often do anyway.

Last but by no means least, I think it’s fair to say that there are usually not any actual consequences for being a hypocrite. People might chat about you behind your back for a bit, but if they like you regardless (or they have to deal with you regardless), they probably won’t make much of a stink over it. At least, not for a while. It’s tough to build an incentivized response when you aren’t seeing the incentive.

And, of course, from time to time we’re all hypocrites. So that’s kind of a positive indicator of being seen as a hypocrite.

How to Not Be a Hypocrite

Not being a hypocrite at all is difficult in the extreme, for all the reasons mentioned earlier. So that shouldn’t be the goal, or the expectation. People are always going to be hypocrites about something or other. We’ll forget what we said, we’ll change our minds, we’ll be forced into a new choice, or we’ll simply decide our morals aren’t enough to keep us out of a particular action. That’s just life. The real goal, the serious goal, is to not be a hypocrite about important things.

This strategy has a couple of advantages. For one, it narrows the field to a smaller number of topics which, presumably, are easier to remember. For another, it forces you to think about what is important to you, and gives you incentive to stand your ground on those subjects.

In order to do that, I find that it is helpful to do five things:

  1. Figure out your principles of living, and write them down or say them out loud from time to time. This will make them seem more real, and give you a better chance of remembering and/or referencing them.²
  2. Consider those principles and apply them to your daily life. It can help to do this with a supporting friend to help you toe the line. There’s a reason people in AA have sponsors.
  3. Then figure out what you do on a daily basis that you consider “important,” based on your principles. Again, it might help to write these down.
  4. Run through some scenarios in your imagination about how you might be forced or tempted into violating those principles in life experiences.
  5. Prepare your response to these potential incidents. This is kind of like when you think of the perfect witty response hours after a prompt, except you’re doing it in advance.

I know, I know, this feels like homework, and it is, but once you’ve done this it becomes a survival advantage in nearly any setting. You will be respected for knowing your principles and sticking to them, even if you are opposed on those principles. You will be better trusted, even by people who don’t like you. And some people will like you better.

This is what I meant in the title about scale — it’s ok to be a hypocrite about the little things. You can say you like Diet Coke and then drink Regular on a daily basis. No one cares. It doesn’t matter; it might even be an amusing quirk. But you can’t say you value life and then support legislation to turn away refugees, or say you value honesty and then steal from the company. You can’t say you value fidelity and then cheat on your spouse.

These are big things, the things that matter. These are the things that scale up and define large chunks of your life. These are the things for which people will judge you, hard. And these are things you should have a plan for in advance, for the days when hypocrisy is just so easy. We’re not going to stop being hypocrites. But we can at least manage to keep the harm to a minimum.

¹They’re hideously wrong, of course. Wars always kill huge numbers of innocent bystanders. But logic is a different discussion.

²This is a long-term project, and you shouldn’t just do it once. I find it helps to do this with a glass of Macallan on a free evening, but that’s just me.

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