Hypocrisy is a failure of identity.
Who is a hypocrite? One answer is simple: the person who says one thing, does another. Such a hypocrite is most famously represented by Molière’s Tartuffe, a pious fraud who, in the play of the same name, tries to seduce his patron’s wife. He tells her that “no wickedness exists until it’s been exposed…. And if you sin in silence, then it’s not a sin.” This is the hypocrite you’ll discover should you look up the word in the dictionary.
On the street, however, in conversation, opinion writing, or the casual diagnoses of strangers, you’ll encounter a breed of hypocrite whose hypocrisy is a little less clear-cut—people who betray, unwittingly, a mismatch between their stated or implied priorities and their true, darker ones. Such hypocrites also say one thing and do another, but their inconsistencies are only disclosed on closer scrutiny. After such scrutiny is applied, however, you can tell that these hypocrites reveal, through inconsistencies and silences, a host of devious motivations, a hollow core, a desire to signal virtuousness, a need to be thought a good person, a quality of being friend to all and friend to none. These hypocrites are not merely guilty of failing to live up to their self-presentation. They lack authentic goodness, even in the absence of any failure. Hypocrisy, in these cases, is more than a vice—it’s a failure of identity.
While Molière gave us the archetypal hypocrite in Tartuffe, he also gave us hypocrisy’s quintessential vengeful unmasker in the character of Alceste in The Misanthrope, whose cry is that others ought to be “honourable, honest, without art, / And everything [they] say should come straight from the heart.” Any statement or act not wholeheartedly felt is, to Alceste, hypocritical. Unsurprisingly, Alceste discovers a world full of hypocrites.
The butt of his peers in the play, Alceste in our time appears triumphant. To judge from contemporary political discourse, there’s no vice less forgivable or more rampant than that of hypocrisy. It is a charge hurled at just about every comer. And yet, though exposing our partisan enemies as hypocrites gives us undeniable pleasure, such accusations leave their targets largely unscathed. To pick just one example, Tennessee state representative Scott DesJarlais, a pro-life Republican who pressured sexual partners to have abortions, is a pure hypocrite in the Tartuffean mold. But DesJarlais’s political career is not in danger: Even rank hypocrisy goes unpunished in American politics. Although we are now a nation of Alcestes, the vices he railed against have become even more entrenched than before and even more or less tolerated.
Playing off Tartuffe and Alceste in her 1979 essay “Let Us Not Be Hypocritical,” the political philosopher Judith Shklar claimed that hypocrisy is a vice particularly loathed in pluralistic liberal democracies because, she argued, the very functioning of a democracy depends on people saying frankly what they mean. Yet at the same time a certain hypocrisy is unavoidable, because even the most principled people must be willing to compromise. As the definition of hypocrisy shifts to mean any action not taken wholeheartedly, it includes not only those who say one thing and do another but those who simply abide by rules they did not create. This leaves, according to Shklar, all motives open to interrogation—including the motive to be sincere.
Despite that drawback, Alceste is popular in our time for obvious reasons: Who does not want people to speak straight from the heart? Against Alceste, there are no defenses of individuals that are not either cynical (“All people are hypocrites”) or falsely considerate (“But it’s bad to say so”). It’s not Alceste’s fault if everyone around him doesn’t measure up. It’s not his fault if his accusations just reinforce the way things are. And it’s certainly not his fault if his recriminations fail to improve anyone around him, or if speaking honestly about others involves words of abuse, but rarely love. He is only telling the truth. Like an unpleasant emetic necessarily administered, he must encourage society to purge itself of its diseases.
Yet Alceste has no reason to suppose that the authentic selves of the peers he despises would be any better than their politely hypocritical self-presentations. His moral onslaught assumes that hypocrisy itself is the only vice that needs to be unmasked and conquered. But authenticity and consistency are not virtues, merely conditions. Unfiltered speech, direct from the heart, may be sincere, but also incoherent and base. Faced with a vice that never aspired to be better, never apologized, and never contradicted itself (or was simply indifferent to self-contradiction), Alceste would be powerless. Indeed, his hunt for hypocritical speech would only strengthen its most vicious practitioners by putting the motivations of their critics into question.
This isn’t a brief for hypocrisy, which rightfully upsets us when we encounter it, casting as it does any profession of belief into doubt. Insincere virtue may be preferable to sincere vice, but only by a hair. And unlike some critics, I don’t think we are plagued by unreasonable demands for moral purity. If anything, our love of sincerity goes hand in hand with a tolerance of corruption and cruelty in speech, so long as we can trust that we aren’t being deceived in those things. Movements that propose to make reforms or moral demands must prepare to have their motivations and their associations endlessly scrutinized; the straightforward crook, by contrast, will get an easier ride. And for all that some object to “political correctness,” it concerns itself not with interior motivations but largely with codes of speech. It is perhaps the only strain in American politics that avoids the questions of hypocrisy and sincerity altogether.
But as a diagnosis of the gap between what we ought to do and what we do do, hypocrisy can have reforming power only if there’s a reason to aim higher. By itself, hypocrisy does not test for goodness, badness, efficacy, or even purity of intention—it can only test for and demand consistency. We require a vocabulary for moral failings that is more exacting than hypocrisy or authenticity, one for which the goal is not to be true to ourselves, but to be better.