Anyone made of stern enough stuff to frequent blogs and internet comment threads knows that our era is one in which hypocrisy appears to be the gravest, and perhaps the only remaining, sin. Any other human failing, it seems, can and should be understood by all competent and compassionate people as having its origin in a physical, chemical, or environmental anomaly, and should never serve as an occasion for scorn, disapproval, or chastisement. Hypocrisy, however, continues to be viewed as a form of malfeasance that arises from the exercise of free will, and therefore a matter of individual responsibility and a provocation to obloquy. Cheat me and I will endeavor to learn what aspects of your culture make this an acceptable form of commerce. Burgle my house and I will reflect upon the likelihood that legalizing the sale of heroin might have brought down its price to a point at which you would not have had to pawn my television set in order to maintain your consumption level. But commit either of these misdeeds after having proclaimed your enthusiasm for upright living and woe betide you. Our modern sensibilities have wandered from those of the great epigrammatist La Rochefoucauld, in whose oft-quoted opinion, “Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.” Now the hypocrite is seen as a would-be oppressor seeking to shame the rest of us into self-denial while savoring the fruit he would forbid to all but himself. We quote with approval the circular argument of William Hazlitt, the somewhat difficult essayist (among whose essays is On the Pleasure of Hating) who claimed: “The only vice that cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy. The repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”
My complaint with fanatical anti-hypocrisy is that it is too censorious of mere talk and too forgiving of actual error. Consider the issue of Albert Gore, Jr.’s energy consumption: Does the fact that his Nashville home consumes electricity at a rate greater than 12 times the national household average invalidate his dire warnings of coming environmental catastrophe? No; he is either correct or incorrect on the merits of the facts, insofar as they can be ascertained. A repellent individual can be the bearer of truth, just as an attractive one can mislead or misjudge. Of course, this is not to say that much can be inferred about Mr. Gore’s actual beliefs on the basis of his observed behavior, and indeed the divergence between his behavior and his speech suggests that we need not fret about the future level of the seas.
So by all means heap verbal abuse upon Mr. Gore for his role in propagating unsubstantiated claims about global temperature trends if that is your take on the issue; berate Mark Souder for making a weak argument against abstinence-only sex education, if you have facts at hand that refute him. But do not presume that Mr. Gore’s penchant for luxurious living or Mr. Souder’s wandering eye invalidate their arguments. The messenger is not the message.