Honorably Handling Hypocrisy

How should we handle one of the most common human traits, hypocrisy? Hypocrites disturb us because they are deceitful, pretending to be what they are not, professing one set of beliefs while living by another. They are found everywhere: in politics, religion, journalism. They are especially annoying when they berate others for doing what they themselves are guilty of doing. Knowingly or not, they are followers of the fifth century B.C. Greek philosopher, Hypocrites, who is the author of the six-part treatise Do As I Say, Not As I Do. While preaching on the values of honesty, purity, sobriety, and moderation, he led a life of unbridled excess, claiming to do so only to demonstrate the harmful effects of giving in to every temptation. Today, many hypocrites follow this ancient tradition of separating creed from deed or actions from beliefs.

A Freshman at a Jesuit High School in the U.S. is doing research on hypocrisy and writes, “I read your article Dealing with Hypocrisy and feel another point should be added to your list.”

Yes, more can always be said. My articles are never complete because they are articles, not books. And speaking of books, here is one you may enjoy, In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue. Our reader then goes on to ask four questions.

Q 1: “Would you not agree that completely removing oneself from a hypocritical situation is another effective way to solve the problem?”

A: When meeting a hypocrite, we have several options, including simply walking away, which is a way of saying Hi and Bye without being confrontational. The message, however, becomes hostile when you walk away with an expression of disgust, for then you are being judgemental.

But before we decide how to act, we need to consider whether the hypocrisy is harmful or benign. Here’s an example, Tom is a wealthy university student. He hates to study and spends all his time partying. I find out that he pays a very bright student to do all his assignments in order to get good grades. But Tom boasts to everyone that he is doing well in school because of his superior intelligence. He also enjoys calling others stupid. Now, let’s look at two encounters.

First, Tom bumps into me and starts bragging about his high grades and suggests that I probably don’t have the intelligence to keep up with him. How do Tom’s comments harm me? The answer is they don’t. Therefore, his comments don’t worry or anger me. So, I just walk away with a smile.

Second, I see Tom up to his usual mischief with a friend of mind. My friend is sensitive and on the verge of tears. Are Tom’s comments hurtful? Yes, not to me, but to my friend. So, rather than walk away, I walk right up to Tom and put a stop to his nonsense. Here are two examples of what I may say to him.

Example 1: Hi, Tom. I couldn’t help hearing what you said to my friend about how intelligent you are and how stupid he is. I’m very proud of you. I want you to repeat these lies as often as possible. Because if you say them often enough you may believe them, and that will help you overcome your low self-esteem. So, whenever you see us, don’t hesitate to practice. Because if you do, one day you, too, may gain enough self-confidence that you will no longer have to belittle others to feel good. Well, we have to go now, but keep up the good work; you can do it! One day, you, too, will be confident!

Example 2: Hi, Tom. Look, between you and me, the only reason you are doing well in school is because you are paying someone to do your assigments. Your success has nothing to do with intelligence. If I were to tell everyone about this, you would become a laughing stock. Instead of being thought of as intelligent, you would be thought of as a fool! I don’t think you want that to happen. So, I’ll tell you what, stop hurting my friends with your insults, and I won’t hurt you. Do you understand?

Q 2: “Do you feel as though this solution (walking away) is immature and/or would create more problems?”

A: When the hypocrite’s comments don’t harm you, walking away can be mature, wise, and kind.

Walking away in anger, however, is immature and can lead to more problems. For example, the hypocrite could interpret your anger as an attack, and thereby grow more hostile. Or your anger may signal to the hypocrite that he is successful and encourage him to act the same way whenever he sees you.

If you find yourself hesitating, not sure whether to walk away or engage, act as the person you want the hypocrite to be and you’ll probably make the right choice.

Q 3: “In contrast, do you believe that a fair solution to the problem would be to engage/confront the hypocrite in order to help them discover their hypocritical actions?”

A: I don’t like to use the term “confront” as it often implies hostility, but I certainly agree with being assertive, not hostile, whenever necessary. The two examples I gave in the answer to Question 1 are examples of assertive behaviour, which simply means standing up for your own rights and defending the rights of others.

Regarding whether we should ‘help people discover their hypocritical actions,’ here are some points to consider:

a) What makes you think they don’t already know they are hypocrites? And if they already know, what’s the point of telling them?

b) What makes you think they are going to listen to your advice?

c) Who appointed you as Guardian of Public Morality?


d) What are your qualifications? The fact is we are all hypocrites. That is, we all fail to live up to what we claim to believe. As humans we are imperfect and have weaknesses. As soon as I tell someone they are hypocritical, don’t I become a hypocrite? You may not be guilty of the same act as the person who offends you, but you are equally guilty of hypocrisy because none of us lives up to the ideals we proclaim. How would you feel if someone confronted you to ‘help you discover your hypocritical actions’?

Or as Christ explained, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3~5)

e) What about my two examples in my answer to Question 1? By putting a stop to the hypocrite’s attacks on my friend, didn’t I become a hypocrite (because I am also imperfect)? Maybe so, but I became a different kind of hypocrite. You see, the person attacking my friend was acting maliciously, but I was acting in defense of my friend. So, our intentions were very different, thereby making our status different.

f) As Carl Gustav Jung (1875~1961) taught, “If people can be educated to see the shadow-side (dark side) of their nature clearly, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbour.”

Q 4: “Would a confrontation lead to additional difficulties?”

A: Confrontations by their nature lead to additional difficulties because hostility brings forth more of the same. But as suggested earlier, at times, assertive behaviour is appropriate. But the guiding principle should be a search for solutions, not a clamouring for criticism and condemnation. Colonel Potter in an episode of M*A*S*H sums up my point very well, “Just remember, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything and the wrong way is to keep trying to make everybody else do it the right way.”

A very helpful exercise is to list our hypocrisies. What are we hiding? What are we afraid to admit? Uncovering them is to discover a potential treasure, for each one offers us the opportunity to develop courage by admitting our weaknesses and develop strength by overcoming them. Socrates (470~399 BC) expressed this idea much more succinctly, “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” To hammer this point home, here is yet another way to express it, “The best way to succeed in life is to act on the advice we give to others.” (Author unknown)

If we decide to walk away from a hypocrite, let’s not ignore their message if it has value, for as Oscar Wilde (1856~1900) wrote, “The value of an idea has nothing whatever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it.” Another way of looking at it is with this saying, “Light is good from whichever lamp it shines.”

Why are we hypocrites? Simply because it is far easier to condemn others than to live up to our ideals. But let’s work together to make a better world by striving after our principles without condemning others. How do we do that? We start by learning how to forgive ourselves for the times we stumble and go astray. For it is only after learning how to forgive ourselves that we will be able to forgive others. And once we forgive others, we will cease condemning them.

Abe Lincoln may have suffered from depression, but he retained a sense of humor. Here is one of the jokes he loved, “A hypocrite murdered both his parents. When charged with the crime, he pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan.”