The dictionary defines hypocrisy as “a pretense of having virtuous character, moral beliefs, or ethical principles that one does not really possess.” Perhaps an even better definition of hypocrisy came from 17th century French author François de La Rochefoucauld, who said: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”
Whether it’s the film and music industries (nauseatingly on display again at the Golden Globe Awards), government (elected officials and bureaucrats alike), or the NFL (players, coaches, and owners), since time immemorial, the human race has been plagued by hypocrisy.
Hollywood hypocrisy, in particular, comes to mind in Matthew 23:27-28: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Of course, everyone is hypocritical at one time or another, just as everyone, no matter how honest he may be, tells a little white lie now and then. But I don’t believe someone who is occasionally hypocritical deserves the tag of hypocrite. After all, human beings are imperfect.
The Founding Fathers are perhaps the best example of virtuousness getting tripped up by hypocrisy even in the best of us. That the Founders led overall virtuous lives is clearly documented, yet they were hypocritical on the issue of slavery. Not only did they fail to address this inhumane practice in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, many of them were slave owners themselves.
The same could be said of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was instrumental in raising the status and dignity of African-Americans, and did so by preaching nonviolence. Yet, his virtuousness took several hits both prior to and after his death.
One of the worst of those hits was his well-documented penchant for plagiarism while in college and later in his stirring speeches. A 1991 article in The Journal of American History, written by no less than the staff at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, admitted that “plagiarism was a general pattern evident in nearly all of his [King’s] academic writings.”
Likewise, King’s notorious philandering was the height of hypocrisy. King biographer David Garrow referred to his extramarital affairs as “compulsive sexual athleticism,” and King himself explained his philandering as “a form of anxiety reduction.” Hmm … I’ll have to chew on that one for a while.
So, yes, even those who have many virtuous accomplishments under their belts have sometimes been guilty of hypocrisy. But they should not be confused with another group of people who are not mere dabblers in hypocrisy, but serial hypocrites who have mastered the art to perfection and who live lives of hypocrisy day in and day out.
Like me, I’m sure you know many people who fit into this category with remarkable ease —individuals who project public images as paragons of virtue while living lives that are totally devoid of virtue.
A glaring example that comes to mind is when I received an e-mail from a legendary leadership guru and bestselling author (“Steve”) whose works and lectures focus primarily on trust and virtue. In fact, he’s built his entire career on his carefully crafted image, a career that has earned him considerable wealth.
In his e-mail, Steve, after reminding me that he was a big fan of my books, asked me if I would consider participating in an e-mail campaign to help his soon-to-be-released book get to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. I smiled, shook my head at how pathetic his request was, then deleted his e-mail.
The reason I ignored Steve’s request was because he had sent me a similar e-mail a few years earlier, and I responded immediately and let him know that I would be more than happy to help him promote his book in any way I could.
Then, on the date he had targeted, I dutifully sent an e-mail blast to my subscribers, encouraging them to buy his book. I was happy when I subsequently saw that his book had not only made it to the top Amazon’s bestseller list, but had also become a New York Times bestseller.
About a year later, I had a new book coming out, and I started gathering commitments from list owners I knew, asking them if they would recommend my book to their readers. One of those list owners was Steve. I sent him an e-mail asking that he send a note to his list similar to the one I had sent to my list for his book.
His silence was deafening. I followed up a week or so later and asked him if he had received my first e-mail. Again, no answer. His lack of response gained him a place in my dead file.
Shortly thereafter, I happened to be talking to a mutual friend of ours, and I mentioned to him my distasteful experience with Steve, whereupon he said to me, “I’m not surprised you didn’t hear back from him, because I’ve had a number of other people over the years tell me that they’ve had similar experiences with him.”
The moral is that the more one talks (or writes) about his own virtuosity, the more reason you have to avoid dealing with him. Truly virtuous people are hard to come by, as Henry David Thoreau so eloquently pointed out when he said, “There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.”
What it all boils down to is that there are a lot of shameful hypocrites in this world, and the only thing you can do about it is to go out of your way to avoid dealing with them. Just as important, don’t clutter your mind trying to figure out why someone is hypocritical. It’s just one of those great mysteries of life.
Best to use your energy to police your own words and actions, and leave it to Nature to deliver justice. It always does, even if you and I aren’t aware of it.