In defense of hyprocrisy

I am a hypocrite.  I do things that are inconsistent with my principles and ideals, and I sometimes conceal this from others and even myself.  Furthermore I am hypocritical even in my admission of hypocrisy, because I hold back details, so as to allow you to think I am being too hard on myself.

Not a hypocrite

It isn’t good to be a hypocrite, but there are worse things than being a hypocrite.  Winston Churchill was a hypocrite.  He talked about freedom and democracy while trying to preserve British rule in India.  Heinrich Himmler was a mass murderer, but he was not a hypocrite.  What he said was aligned with what he believed, and what he did was aligned with what he said.

The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were hypocrites.  They proclaimed political principles and ideals that few, if any of them, fully practiced themselves.  Since my youth, I have been stirred by Thomas Jefferson’s great statements about political, intellectual and religious freedom.  But Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite.   He wrote that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while owning human beings as property and subjecting them to harsh punishments for their attempts at liberty and happiness.

A hypocrite

Yet I am still stirred by Thomas Jefferson’s great language.  Should we condemn him for his hypocrisy.  Or should we be grateful to him for drafting the Declaration of Independence, risking his life in the cause of American independence and enacting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom?  Would it have been better if he had been an honest and straightforward racist, like John C. Calhoun or Jefferson Davis?

These thoughts are prompted by the annual Fourth of July party given by my philosopher friend and neighbor David White.  We began by reading the Declaration of Independence, then over the years added the Declaration of Sentiments by the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and then “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass’s great 1852 speech in Rochester, in which he pointed out that the rights proclaimed in the Declaration and the Constitution did not apply to him as a black man—in other words, that white Americans’ claim to believe that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” was hypocritical.

The original sin of the United States is that it was founded on slavery.  Without acceptance of slavery, the thirteen rebel British colonies would never have been able to come together as a unified nation.  The saving virtue of the Founders is that many of them were ashamed of this fact.  As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech, there is no specific language in the Constitution upholding slavery.  The word “slavery” is first used in the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 which abolishes slavery.

Fewer than 10 years after Douglass made his speech, the Southern states established a Confederacy which honestly proclaimed slavery as a founding principle.   The Confederates were not hypocrites.  They were honest racists and not hypocritical.  On the other hand, many white supporters of the Union, and even some abolitionists, talked about freedom and were racists at heart.  Frederick Douglass had no problem deciding what side he was on, and neither should you and I.   Even a half-truth can be worth fighting for against a total lie.

Hypocrisy is a normal human failing.  The only people who are not hypocrites are saints and sociopaths.  It is good to try to be honest with ourselves and others.  But hypocrisy can be a virtue in the sense that in trying to appear to be better people than we are, we actually become better people than we are.  Amoral cynicism has no such redeeming virtue.  Neither does sneering at flawed people who are trying to do good.

Click on The present belittling the past for an earlier post of mine on contemporaries who look down on the Founders and other great people of the past.

Click on The argument from hypocrisy for an earlier post of mine on the hollowness of hypocrisy-bashers with a great quote from the SF writer Neal Stephenson.

Click on Slavery was America’s original sin for an earlier post of mine on covert references to slavery in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Click on Thomas Jefferson on American freedom for great quotes from one who didn’t always practice what he preached.

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One Response to “In defense of hyprocrisy”

  1. Joyce Ireland Says:

    Having gone to Williamsport Schools with you I know you are one of the best guys I have ever known….Joyce

    Like

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