You sometimes see something like the following in public life: Person A speaks against a certain practice or policy as somewhere between being detrimental to national interests and being morally wrong; Person A is then found to be engaging in the very practice or policy he was condemning; Person A is declared a hypocrite for doing one thing and saying another. Whether it’s a pro-traditional marriage politician who’s been divorced three times, or an environmentalist being called out for flying all over the world in a private jet to speak to groups about how people shouldn’t fly all over the world in private jets, or public education advocates sending their own children to private schools, or an anti-drunk driving crusader getting popped for a DUI, society is quick to jump on the offender as an lying, two-faced hypocrite… and that’s if they’re feeling charitable.
But is that what hypocrisy is? Simply doing one thing and saying another?
No. I think there’s another piece that’s needed to complete the definition.
A hypocrite is someone who preaches against something BUT believes that it’s wrong when you do it, but OK when they do it. If they admit their mistake, then they are shown to be a sinner, or inconsistent, or capable of having a moment of weakness; but that’s not the same as hypocrisy. Hypocrisy lies in holding others to a standard different from oneself.
Let’s look at our examples. Take the anti-drunk driving crusader who’s charged with drunk driving. If they respond to the situation with a sincere admission to the effect of “I am so sorry, this was so wrong of me, I lost control of myself, it’s my fault,” that’s inconsistency between principle and action, a moment of imperfection (albeit a serious one, certainly). If they respond with a “Well, it was just once, I thought I was fine, nobody got hurt, what’s the big deal?” that’s hypocrisy. In the latter case, they’ve revealed the different standard to which they hold themselves: “Well, it’s not so bad if I do it, but if they do it….”
Or take the example of the pro-traditional marriage politician who’s been divorced three times. If he responds to criticisms by saying, “Yes, I’ve made some mistakes in my life, including not taking marriage seriously enough at times, and I regret that, which is why I’m all the more committed to this cause, as I see the importance of strong marriages and strong families for society,” he shows himself to be committed to the principle even if his practice has not always matched. If he were to respond by saying, “Look, that’s my life, I’m free to do as I please, I’m just one person, what’s it hurting you?” that’s hypocrisy. He’s holding himself to a different standard.
Notice, too, how often the hypocrite will play the “no harm, no foul” card. When they speak about the principle of their position, the underlying premise is that the thing is wrong in itself; but when they’re caught, suddenly it’s only wrong if somebody gets hurt. It’s a double-standard of morality. The hypocrite tries to get the principle to bridge the gap between the two standards, but the principle can’t support the weight of the act crossing over that chasm, and the principle snaps. The hypocrite has lost the principle.
When we see someone not practicing what they preach, we should first determine their attitude toward their lapse before we decide how to approach them. For the sinner who knows he has sinned needs encouragement to follow through on his penitence and firm purpose of amendment; the hypocrite needs to be shaken and jarred and made to realize his sin so that he may take that next step toward healing and integrity. If the sinner who has acknowledged his sin is chastised too vehemently, he may fall into despair; if the hypocrite is gently encouraged to get onto the right track, he may laugh as he would at a doctor who told him to keep up the good work on the physical therapy he was meant to be doing on his perfectly good knee.
Not all inconsistencies are hypocrisies. Properly distinguishing between the two could make the difference in saving someone’s soul.