Theresa O’Connor

On hypocrisy

The only vice which cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy.

— English writer William Hazlitt

An old post of mine recently received a flurry of attention all over the ’tubes. Out of all of the feedback I received, the various accusations of hypocrisy caught me the most by surprise.

I’m accused of being disrespectful to the disrespectful. Gwenhwyfaer is in full agreement that [I’m] a hypocrite, and furthermore suggests that I advocate compromis[ing] one’s principles in order to make others feel better.

I address being disrespectful to the disrespectful in my post on empathy. The short and sweet of it is that yes, I should have worded some things differently, left some bits out, etc.

As for Gwenhwyfaer’s accusation, I don’t believe that people should compromise their principles for the sake of the feelings of others. That being said, there are any number of other things RMS could have said which would have been respectful to Stefan while not compromising his position vis-à-vis natalism. As James said, why is it so hard for people here to realize that you can both dislike the idea of having children, and respect other people’s feelings about it? I’m baffled.

All of this hypocrisy talk reminded me of this wonderful passage from one of my favorite novels, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. I hope that reading it will help to make clear why I’m not particularly bothered by being accused of hypocrisy. (From pp. 190–191 in this edition. Apologies for the apparent Godwin in the middle.)

“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticize others—after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”


“Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behavior—you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

“You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exclaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours—but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”

“Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.

“Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.

Finkle-McGraw beamed upon Hackworth like a master upon his favoured pupil. “As you can see, Major Napier, my estimate of Mr. Hackworth’s mental acuity was not ill-founded.”

“While I would never have supposed otherwise, Your Grace,” Major Napier said, “it is nonetheless gratifying to have seen a demonstration.” Napier raised his glass in Hackworth’s direction.

“Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves—they took no moral stances and lived by none.”

“So they were morally superior to the Victorians—” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

“—even though—in fact, because—they had no morals at all.”

There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception—he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time, it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

“Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved—the missteps we make along the way—are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.”

Commenter AN made substantially the same point as Stephenson has Finkle-McGraw make in the first paragraph: All it takes to avoid hypocrisy is to espouse no values at all. Does that make one a better human being? Jim and Gwenhwyfaer both answered yes. I say no.