What makes the world safe for hypocrisy is the belief of many that it is not a social sin, but a virtue.
I can’t explain why, but flagrant hypocrisy has always roused that “fingernails-on-a- chalkboard” irritation in me. For me, hypocrisy is worse than dishonesty; it is the one vice that I can’t countenance, let pass or forgive.
Unfortunately, since most of those in positions of power and authority regard hypocrisy as a virtue, not a vice, my personal loathing for this two-faced pretense represents both a distinct minority point of view as well as an aggravation for others. François de La Rochefoucauld expressed it best when he said that hypocrisy is “the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”
Hypocrisy is a Culture Disease
Hypocrisy has become ingrained in the DNA of social, business and political interaction because it is such a handy tool to make one appear to be honest, fair, high-minded and moral without having to make the effort to be so. Those who practice this form of intellectual dishonesty fight hard to hide it, because when the contradiction between what was professed and what is performed is exposed, it becomes a caldron of humiliation.
So why is so little of it exposed? For one thing, the reward for those in business and government who attempt to resist or expose hypocrisy is to end up on the outs with the “ins.” Sure, exposing hypocrisy is easy and great fodder for late-night show comedians, but if you want to keep your job or earn a promotion, it’s easier and certainly more advantageous to keep your mouth shut; to go along to get along, regardless of the kind of hypocrisy being practiced.
Morals and Tactics
There are two types of hypocrisy: One that is called “moral hypocrisy” and the other is “tactical hypocrisy.” Moral hypocrisy occurs when an individual or institution demands high moral standards of activity from others, while consistently violating those standards in their own personal life or institutional actions. Tactical hypocrisy – usually practiced by business and government – is when one propagates a high-minded philosophy, pattern of behavior or specific objective, while you behave in a different way to achieve a hidden objective.
Examples of moral hypocrisy practiced by the powerful are legion:
- Eliot Spitzer based much of his campaign for governor of New York on his spirited prosecution of prostitution rings as attorney general, only to be spectacularly “outed” for being a regular customer of the very same prostitution rings.
- Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore won recognition and adulation as he wandered the world encouraging all of us to reduce our carbon footprint, only to suffer a black eye when it was revealed he was flying to all these meetings in a gas-guzzling, pollution-increasing private jet.
- Florida Congressman Mark Foley was a vocal and highly visible campaigner against child sex offenders, only to resign in disgrace from his office after allegations surfaced of inappropriate contact with an underage Congressional page.
- The child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church represent perhaps the most glaring example of rampant moral hypocrisy as the words and actions of the priests fell far short of their avowed moral teachings. And that unholy discrepancy carried a stiff price tag: the Church has paid more than $6 billion to literally thousands of claimant victims since the scandal emerged.
Money aside, the champions of tactical hypocrisy are far and away the institutions of business and government. Many believe that neither could function if hypocrisy were to be somehow eradicated, but the truth is they would both be better off. Tactical hypocrisy allows a business to profess its commitment to the customer when it knows it is selling an inferior product. It enables a business manager to give lip service to employee value and respect and still ruthlessly pursue personal gain–even at the expense of the employee.
Politicians and governments appear to have virtually invented hypocrisy. It is the shield that permits the politician or government to espouse high moral standing and objectives, while engaged in achieving a completely different set of intentions. The mid-wife at the birth of the American government was hypocrisy. The Founding Fathers encouraged revolution from Great Britain supposedly motivated by a fealty to “democracy and equality for all.” Yet the truth is that for these elite in America it was more about power, position and taxes. Most of these leaders owned and traded in slaves; when it came to democracy, that right to participate was limited to free, white, wealthy males.
Speaking with Forked Tongues
That kind of two-faced tactical hypocrisy in government is everywhere. The American government, for example, has always professed that the objective of its foreign policy is to “secure human rights and expand democracy.” All foreign policy actions are, theoretically, taken to achieve those stated objectives. But this often becomes hypocrisy because it is selective, taken only when the actions are in our own self-interest.
How many brutal dictators who suppressed the rights and took the lives of thousands – if not millions – of their citizens have been supported (sometimes even put in power) by the American government, simply because the dictator was not a threat to our safety or supported our political and economic interests? The answer is that they are too numerous to list.
We go apoplectic when Syria’s al-Assad uses poison gas on 1,000 of his citizens, while nary a peep was offered when Saddam Hussein gassed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and Iranians. Of course in this case, we didn’t like the Iranian government, so it was “okay.”After supporting the Taliban to embarrass the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the government remained silent as the Taliban inhumanely suppressed the rights of its citizens – especially women. It was only after the Taliban government allowed Afghanistan to be a base for launching attacks on America, did we decide that the time was ripe for America to fight for democracy and individual rights in Afghanistan. None of the actions of the American government in these situations may be wrong, but they are examples of “tactical hypocrisy.” A more honest statement from the government might have been: “Look, you clowns can do whatever you want in your backyard, just so long as what you do is not a threat to our interests.”
The current turmoil in the Middle East is a good example of how hypocrisy can create a real conundrum. With the stated American commitment to individual rights and democracy, the government found itself in a quixotic quandary with the emergence of the “Arab Spring.” For over 30 years Egypt’s Mubarak had been a repressive despot, but he was our despot who provided stability and supported US political interests in the region. When millions of Egyptians called America’s hypocritical bluff regarding individual rights and democracy, the American government could only stand aside – angering both sides – as Mubarak was overthrown and the semblance of a democratic process instituted. The only problem is we didn’t like the results of the election that put a radical, anti-American Muslim party in power. So, when the Egyptian military decided to counterattack and oust the Muslims, the American government gave lip-service outrage to the loss of democracy, but the truth is we were happy to see the military take charge again, because it seems to be in our best interests; so screw democracy.
The story is much the same in Syria. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was not a particular favorite of the American government, but he did maintain stability and was not viewed as a direct threat to American interests. However, when thousands of Syrians began to revolt against al-Assad, American support for “democracy and individual rights” was put to a test. The hypocrisy inherent in this position created a predicament for the government. The initial government approach was as impotent and ever: al-Assad should go, but we’re not going to get involved. Again it is this hypocrisy of saying one thing but wanting to do something else that has put the government in a dilemma. The truth is that once the American government came to grips with what is the alternative to al-Assad, it has decided he might not be quite so bad, after all.
The Corporate World is No Exception
It may not involve gassing and killing, but tactical hypocrisy is just as much in play in business as it is in government. Hypocrisy is widespread in the corporate world, and the results can be just as debilitating and discouraging, especially when it comes to dealing with employees.
The genesis for corporate hypocrisy is the ubiquitous “Mission Statement.” Full of lofty ideals, principles and objectives, the mission statement sounds wonderful and promises inviolate ethics, fairness and value for both customers and employees. The only thing missing from all these mission statements is a line at the end that says: We will adhere to all these ideals and promises unless they interfere with or prevent us from doing what we feel is in the interests of the corporation and its senior management. Of course, you will never see a statement like that, but if you did, it wouldput an end to hypocrisy. In other words, don’t hold your breath.
All too often, corporate managers will profess their loyalty to and belief in the value of the employee force, only to resort to outsourcing employees in an effort to squeeze out a few more dollars of profit. Corporate management talks about fairness and equity, only to keep bonuses for themselves and accept compensation obscenely tilted toward the top. When it comes time to cut expenses, the cuts start at the bottom. We could go on and on with other examples of corporate hypocrisy, but the point is made. Dispite this hypocrisy, corporate managers wonder why employees are not always loyal or put forth their best efforts.
Corporate management embraces hypocrisy as a virtue and not a vice, because most managers lack the courage to trust honesty or to exhibit real openness; it allows them to say one thing, knowing full well they will do something else when it is in their own best interests to do so. And that is why hypocrisy so ticks me off.
And the Moral of the Story
For the weak, lazy, incompetent and quite frankly the dishonest individual, corporation or government hypocrisy becomes a virtue and not a vice. Hypocrisy allows them to pretend to be what they want to be, even though they lack the vision, courage and talent to be that way. The problem is that in the end hypocrisy is always exposed and when it is, the result is ridicule and failure.
There is a way to avoid hypocrisy – especially as a leader in business or government – and that is to always tell others what you are going to do and then do it. It may sound too simple, but taking that consistent approach to your intentions will build the trust and credibility needed for a leader to do what they say they are about and what they are going to do. It might be refreshing to give that approach a try.