In praise of hypocrisy, the forgotten virtue
Since angry young men first broke through the veil of Victorian propriety, 20th and now 21st century Americans have come to view hypocrisy as an evil to be exposed and eradicated -- something that stands in the way of goodness. Whether it's Tennessee Williams railing against filial lies or Dustin Hoffman exposing Mrs. Robinson's middle class mendacity or Ferris Bueller's contempt for entrenched bullshit, baby boomers have celebrated atop the rubble pile of social convention. But what if it turns out that hypocrisy is good? What if hypocrisy is the necessary place where aspiration meets human imperfection?
When reality TV spotlights deeply flawed (read awful) people all day and night, rather than relentlessly wholesome 2-D characters like Ozzie and Harriet, the Brady Bunch or the Cosbys, are we always better off? Did simplistic visions of what family life was like make us sillier -- less equipped to deal with complex realities? Yes, to some degree. But they also provided heroic role models toward which to aspire, even if we gradually adjusted our views to comport with reality.
One of the unintended consequences of this war on hypocrisy is the idea that since newspapers and media rarely live up to their claims of objectivity, they should abandon that hypocritical goal entirely and commit to being aggressively subjective. That belief has spawned such abominations as Fox News and MSNBC on TV -- or print propaganda outlets like the Washington Times and the Daily Kos online. The result has been to create echo chambers around fixed political belief systems, rather than fostering the broader shared public conversations that used to emerge from attempts at objective news from mainstream newspapers or network TV news.
Yes, the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post all fail miserably to live up to their proclaimed goal of objectivity, but by aspiring to it and reaching for its lofty branches each day, we are all better served than if they were to give up and join their less hypocritical brethren. Imagine a world populated by nothing Hannities and Maddows.
When it comes to entertainment, maybe by watching a somewhat wooden Lincoln strive for a more perfect union or the characters on Modern Family mostly do the right thing by episode's end, we are more inspired to strive for greatness than when we spend time viewing the less varnished Kardashian clan.
Of course, journalism and entertainment are but two examples of how our abandonment of hypocrisy has actually worked against social progress in important ways. Consider that by exposing our politician's personal lives to absurd levels of scrutiny, demanding no daylight between their policy positions and private conduct, we could drive our most talented leaders away from public service and into the private sector.
By contrast, Victorian nobles led lives of staggering hypocrisy, cavorting in ways that had little relationship to their public personas, but the public mythology helped to draw their actual behavior upward and inspire the broader public.
Rather than looking to Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill for inspiration, perhaps we should turn to their forerunner and inspiration, Henrik Ibsen and his counter-argument in The Wild Duck. In the play from 1880s, a young man enters a complex family household and exposes its lies with his smug confidence, only to destroy their every chance of happiness. Sometimes, Ibsen suggests, we need our life lies to help keep our eyes on the horizon.
Is it possible that we as a nation may have become a bit simplistic and two-dimensional about the place of hypocrisy in our world and its value?
Our beloved Constitution is itself the most noble sort of hypocrisy. It is an aspirational document proposing an egalitarian meritocracy, written by gender-oppressors, aristocrats and slave-owners.
I'm not suggesting that attacking the mythologies and fixed ideas that get in our way isn't a vital and beautiful task. But maybe having a slightly idealized story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we want to be is a good thing -- and just as important as the will to disrupt and expose.
Full disclosure: I'm working on a book titled In Praise of Hypocrisy. If you are a literary agent or publisher, please know that I am focused exclusively on my passion project and have no interest in financial reward. Zero. But email me. Behold, hypocrisy in all its splendor.