In Defence Of Hypocrisy

Robin Fishwick, 12th March 2000ce

It is a sad indictment of a society when the only safe target of anything approaching universal condemnation is hypocrisy. Hypocrites trip themselves up, condemn themselves out of their own mouths by contradicting with their actions what they claim to espouse as ideals. Criticising hypocrisy, then, seems all well and good. The only problem is that now we have a social climate where it is impossible to embrace any moral position without fear of being branded as 'loony' if you cling doggedly to the position, or 'hypocritical' if you fall short of it. The result is that we are left with a cynics jamboree and a tendency towards moral paralysis. In a perfect world, moral paralysis would not be a problem, but a perfect world it is not, and as soon as you so much express concern the snipers are out. It is much safer to abdicate all moral responsibility than step into the danger zone - and the danger zone is huge. If you fall short of the ideal you espouse, you are a hypocrite. It follows, therefore, that in order never to be a hypocrite, it is safest not to espouse any ideals you may have any difficulty living up to - result; said cynicism and moral paralysis.

Harriet Harman got a lot of criticism for not sending her children to a state school. The criticism came from both sides: the left wing for abandoning the state sector and the right wing for claiming to support the state sector but not supporting it with her actions - a clear case of hypocrisy, surely. But what the debate failed to touch on was that Harriet Harman's position is shared by well-meaning parents across the country. The state sector in education has been eroded, causing a situation where many parents with a deep distaste for the two-tier system feel forced by parental responsibility to go along with it and opt out. Had she not taken her notorious choice she would have been guilty of jeopardising her children's future to make a political point.

So instead of discussing the systematic dismantling of a quality state education system, it all became a game of how much can you make the poor woman squirm. Harriet Harman would have been able to say 'I felt I had to send my children to an opted-out school because of the systematic underfunding and under-resourcing of state schools. I don't want this to continue. I want it to become unnecessary in the future for other parents to feel forced into the same action as I was'.

It is exactly the same in the health service. There must be thousands of people each year ideologically opposed to private medicine who resort to it when otherwise their old mum'd have another fourteen months of agony. The system makes hypocrites of so many of us, but as long as the sneering continues, the system is unassailed.

I always have difficulties with having to say whether or not I am a vegetarian. The game of criticising vegetarians is widespread - 'why do you wear leather shoes then?', 'how come you eat cheese, isn't that exploiting animals as well?', 'you can't eat that, it's got gelatine in it'. All of these criticisms are fair enough coming from a vegan, but they rarely do come from vegans. They come from people who eat anything, with the possible exception of veal and pate de fois gras. Alright, so I'm a bit of a hypocrite, but how come it's those of us who don't eat some things who get criticised for what we do eat, while those who eat anything stay unscathed? The answer is that the unrepentant omnivores do not place themselves in the line of fire - no-one can accuse them of hypocrisy. Having said that, I sometimes think their squirm-free existence depends on the rest of us remaining too polite to use words like 'abattoir' at the table.

Those of us who aim high and fall short will always be hypocrites, while those without beliefs, ideals or any expression of concern gain commendation every time they show gentleness or perform the slightest noble act.

Hence it is that Anita Roddick probably generates more scorn than any other captain of industry. You can rip off the third world, exploit animals, sell weapons to inhumane regimes and that's business, but try to run an ethical company and you will always be criticised for being less than an angel. Well, I'm with you, Anita. If you can't go from apathy to concern without treading in the odd dollop of hypocrisy, so be it. I'll take that risk. And the next time I get sniped at by the cynics, I'll have my answer ready - 'but when did I ever claim not to be a hypocrite?'