The Post-Modern Self   /   Spring 2017   /    Signifiers


B.D. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

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.

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