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Ruth Bettelheim, Ph.D. Headshot

Hypocrisy in High Places

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David Vitter, Mark Sanford, Chip Pickering, John Ensign, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Henry Hyde, Rob Livingston, Mark Foley: all are Family Values politicians and former leaders in excoriating Bill Clinton and others for sexual misbehavior who have been caught with their pants down.

As soon as their own peccadilloes are revealed, charges of hypocrisy are (correctly) leveled against these men. However, the psychology of this type of hypocrisy has seldom been discussed. Nor is hypocrisy exclusive to politicians. We have all been at least tempted to make ourselves hypocrites at one time or another, because hypocrisy stems from a conflict between our deepest desires and our beliefs about what is right or good. The more extreme the inner conflict, the more likely it is to cause us difficulties in life.

When we have such high moral principles and such strict and unyielding beliefs that we cannot confess our true desires to ourselves, even in our hearts, they remain outside of our conscious awareness or control. In a roundabout effort to suppress those aspects of ourselves that we reject and despise so much, we try to control them in the outside world. If we can make everyone else behave correctly, in accordance with the views of our conscience, we think that we too will be safe from these temptations. Conversely, seeing others engage behaviors forbidden to us increases the power of our own impulses - which is another motivation for striving to eradicate immorality in the world at large.

As human beings, we all have passions which we should not act on as moral people. If we make no distinction between desires and actions and condemn them both with equal harshness, there is no room to be human and not filled with self-loathing. There is no escape from sin. And if we can't evade our own harsh judgment, we want no one else to escape either. Seeing others get away with what we cannot is infuriating. We feel that this is profoundly unfair and try to prevent others from having the pleasure or satisfaction that we forbid ourselves.

Conflicts between powerful desires and conscience leads people into hypocritical positions. The harsher we are in condemning lust in ourselves, the harsher and more vocal we will be in condemning lustful behavior in others. The stronger the lustful impulse in the people who cannot admit, even in their hearts, that they lust, the greater their impulse to condemn and control the behavior of those who engage in those forbidden behaviors.

The problem is that when passions - whether greed, lust, rage, or anything else - get bottled up inside, they expand over time, as though they had been shut up in a pressure cooker with no safety valve. The inner safety valve that we all have consists of thoughts, daydreams, fantasies, and conversations with others about our desires. If we think that even the thoughts or fantasies are sinful, we do not allow them to enter our minds and certainly do not speak about them. Then there is no safety valve and the passions eventually erupt in an uncontrollable explosion. When we repress important needs and desires so severely that we are unable to acknowledge and accept them as a part of ourselves, we give up the possibility of a controlled, thoughtful response to them. This is why the very most unforgiving, stringently moralistic of us (from Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart on down) are the ones most likely to become hypocrites.