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