Calling out hypocrites and looking in the mirror

Like to call out hypocrites? It might be time to take a good look in the mirror


Fresno Bee, November 1, 2014 

Hypocrisy abounds.

Consider these recent stories:

• The inspector assigned to investigate a Secret Service prostitution scandal resigned because of accusations that he paid a prostitute for sex in Florida.

• A Washington, D.C. rabbi who has complained about sexual immorality was arrested for secretly videotaping women taking ritual baths at his synagogue.

• The director of an ethics center at the University of North Carolina was implicated in a scheme in which student athletes took fake classes and received phony grades. The UNC ethics expert wrote a book on sports ethics where she argued that misbehavior in sports has become so prevalent that “people are shaking their heads in despair as they try to find solutions.”

There are good reasons for despair and a lot to shake our heads about when the ethics experts are suspected of being unethical. A cynical saying says that those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach. Maybe those who aren’t ethical teach ethics, inspect ethics scandals and preach about good behavior

Of course, most people — even most ethics inspectors, clergy, and professors — are not immoral. Decent people are a dime a dozen. But for every 10 decent people, there are a couple of stinkers.

The stinkers stick in our heads. Ordinary decency is boring. It is more entertaining when a hypocrite on a moral pedestal falls from grace. Who doesn’t giggle when a moral authority gets caught with his pants down?

But we ought not to laugh too long. The smug satisfaction we get from watching hypocrites fall is a short step away from hypocrisy. After all, even members of the decent majority have moral blind spots. And the hypocrite’s crimes hurt real people, whose suffering is exacerbated by our giggling gossip.

The Urban Dictionary defines hypocrisy as a crime that everyone but me should be punished for. A book by Robert Kurzban cleverly asks, “Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite?” We readily detect hypocrisy in others but rarely see it in ourselves. We excuse our own moral failings while we condemn others. Moral self-deception is a coping mechanism. And moral blame is a fun social activity.

Most of us will never commit major felonies. But who hasn’t committed a moral misdemeanor? We harbor unspoken animosities and minor lusts. We let grudges fester and nurse secret resentments. We turn a blind eye to the needy, take free rides and avoid responsibility. And we laugh at those who need our compassion.

Moral decency is hard work. It requires continued self-assessment, honesty and modesty. One response to this demanding process is to turn away from the moral mirror and get busy judging others. Self-reflection is lonely and difficult. Pontificating about the moral failures of others is much more amusing than confessing our own sins.

Our culture is fascinated by stories of liars, cheaters, frauds and hypocrites: from Adam and Cain to Judas. The clergy, cops and coaches of the modern world provide further grist for the moral gossip mill.

And we love to gossip. But most gossip is cold and cruel. And it smells faintly of hypocrisy. Jesus was right to condemn the hypocrites who are so busy judging others that they don’t see their own moral failings. That condemnation applies to each of us.

One cynical response is simply to give in to this common human failing. If we are all hypocrites, then maybe we should embrace our absurdity and keep dishing the gossip. The higher path is, of course, to stop the malicious chatter and look in the mirror.

Moral health and ethical hygiene begin with self-examination. Just as you probe your own body for tumors and odd growths, you should probe your soul for those festering lumps that can become moral cancers.

Candid self-criticism is not easy. It’s not always pleasant to look at your own naked body in a full-length mirror. Nor is it easy to put your soul under a microscope. It’s much more fun to mock other people’s bodies and to gossip about their flaws and failures.

Hypocrisy and moral failure are common human afflictions. Forgiveness and compassion may be in order — even toward ourselves. But the best way to avoid hypocrisy is keep your mouth shut and your eye on the mirror.

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Kid Brother Surveillance

Be aware of your actions in this age of surveillance

Fresno Bee, May 2, 2014

We live in an age of constant surveillance, where our words and actions can be made public by anyone with a cellphone and an Internet connection. In the old days, morality was enforced with the thought that God was watching. In the era of totalitarian states, God was replaced by Big Brother.

Today, surveillance has become democratic, as each of us has the power to record and publicize the misdeeds of anyone we meet. Big Brother has been replaced by a billion kid brothers who keep sticking their cameras into other people’s business.

Secret recordings have exposed some egregious stuff. The racist comments of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling were exposed in this way. A few weeks earlier, a Golden State Warriors assistant coach was fired for making secret recordings of his team.

In 2011, an NPR employee was caught saying that tea party activists are xenophobic racists. Also in 2011, President Obama and former French President Sarkozy were caught speaking privately about their dislike for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2012, a secret recording of Mitt Romney caught him saying that 47% of the public were dependent on the government.

The law provides some protection against clandestine recording. But once the cat is out of the bag, the law won’t fix a damaged reputation. It is hard to hide anything in the era of crowd-sourced, pocket-sized surveillance. Racists, sexists, adulterers, and crooks should know that in the Facebook era, your bad deeds are only a click away.

While we might question the motives of the kid brother snoops, there is no denying their power and the serious loss of privacy this creates. But prying eyes can force us to behave ourselves. Whatever you say or do — in a business meeting, on the golf course, or online — can end up being made public.

One solution is simply to avoid saying or doing dumb and immoral stuff; and don’t be a hypocrite. We ought to behave — even in private — in ways that we are proud to affirm. We ought to avoid saying and doing those sorts of things that get the gossips talking and the cameras recording. If you wouldn’t say it in public, then don’t say it at all.

Hypocrites change their speech and behavior to fit their audience. Hypocrisy rests upon a tangled web of lies, masks, secret alliances, inside jokes, winks, and nods. Hypocrites say and do things in private that they condemn in public and vice versa. Gossipy snoops love to expose hypocrisy.

Justice Louis Brandeis once suggested that publicity is the remedy for social diseases. He said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” While this idea is often used to call for greater transparency in government, we forget that sunlight is an equal opportunity enlightener. We are all being observed and recorded all the time.

This is a bit scary. But kid brother surveillance does make it harder to keep immoral behavior and vicious ideas hidden. Some citizens are even turning the cameras on Big Brother himself. Earlier this year, someone smuggled a video recorder into the U.S. Supreme Court, which was the first time the court had ever been recorded. And camera phones have been used to record police brutality.

The prying eyes of a kid brother with a microphone can be irritating to those who value privacy. Sometimes we just want to be left alone. And liberty seems to require zones of privacy. Unfortunately, while it might be nice to imagine retreating to a world of pre-electronic privacy, the cell-cam Rubicon has already been crossed. One consolation is to recall that the good old days were also full of racism, sexism and other hypocritical diseases that fester in private places.

Kid brother surveillance means that privacy is a lost dream. Everyone you meet is armed with a camera. The constant threat of public exposure makes it harder for the hypocrites and racists to hide. The downside is that we each have to confront our own hypocrisies. Each of us now has the capacity to act as our brother’s moral keeper. But we ought to first take a selfie, before we turn the camera on someone else.

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