You're a hypocrite, and you know it

Mud is being slung, and it's sticking to priests and politicians. But, says Genevieve Fox, you're not so squeaky clean yourself

Gay priests preach against homosexuality, the Labour leader sends his son to a grant-maintained school ... hypocrisy is all around us. And how we revel in it. We positively drool at the discomfort of politicians as they level accusations of hypocrisy at each other in their unceasing attempt to catch each other out.

But check out your own back yard. We like to say we are environmentally friendly, for example, but how many of us would give up our car for a bicycle or choose a winding B-road over a straight-as-the-crow-flies bypass. How many animal lovers would swap their leather jacket for a plastic mac, a pint of milk for liquidised soya beans? How many of us started going to that excellent (private) dentist long before it became impossible to sign up with the NHS? And how many have swept that affair under the office carpet?

We can, of course, find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves for our own inconsistencies. None of us pretends to be perfect. But it is harder to forgive our religious and political leaders. Enter the accused. Representing politics: Tim Yeo (creator of two single-parent families) and David Mellor (adulterer), ministers in a government that traded on its family values. Representing religion: a horde of Jimmy Swaggart tele-evangelists (greedy, self-serving, blatantly un-Christian).

These are the bad hypocrites. For, just as there are varying degrees of hypocrisy, there are various categories of hypocrites. There are good hypocrites and bad hypocrites and somewhere in between there are the reluctant hypocrites and the falsely accused.

The bad hypocrites, the like of Tim Yeo, not only profess one belief and do something entirely different, they also cause harm to others in pursuit of self-gain. "Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue," wrote Rochefoucauld. It became one of Oscar Wilde's favourite quips.

The good hypocrites, according to the agony columnist Irma Kurtz, say one thing and do something entirely different in order to avoid being cruel. "The hypocrite puts up a curtain and it is what is behind that curtain that is frightening. Sometimes it is better not to know. The man who commits adultery and then comes home to his wife, smiling and bearing a gift before making love to her is being hypocritical. But is it better to come home and say, I think you should know I am sleeping with my secretary? Sometimes hypocrites are protecting themselves from being cruel and cruelty is perhaps more reprehensible than hypocrisy."

Quite where Robert Hughes, the erstwhile Citizen's Charter minister, fits in remains unclear, but he certainly doesn't fall into one of the biggest categories, namely the falsely accused. The falsely accused are the Anita Roddicks of our time (everybody wants to catch her out, refusing to believe someone can be successful and principled) and those who merely change their minds, the feminists turned post-feminist housewives, the socialists turned capitalists, the Tory minister who switches from Labour.

The most oversubscribed category is filled with the reluctant hypocrites, who are stuck in a moral no man's land. Weaned on a welfare state ideology, still clinging to the liberal values inherited from the Sixties, the reluctant hypocrites are created by health and education. They continue to believe in traditional codes of behaviour which, through no fault of their own, are entirely at odds with individualism and the dictates of selfishness. They are forced to make choices (which now extend to eating habits, all those agonising dilemmas over whether to pass up an invitation to foie gras at Marco Pierre White's after last week's veal demo) that render their liberal posturing untenable.

Epitomised by the champagne socialists of north London, the reluctant hypocrites fail to practice what they dearly, sincerely preach due to unavoidable political constraints and a conscience that says their children's futures are more important than their political and moral convictions. Enter Tony Blair.

"I am not going to make a choice for my child on the basis of what is the politically correct thing to do," said Tony Blair when he was lambasted over the London Oratory decision. A reluctant hypocrite if ever there was one.

As with education, so with health. While non-hypocrites, untrammelled by conscience or ideology, painlessly pay up for private health care, the reluctant hypocrites agonise between their inefficient, unreliable local NHS hospital and the offer of a company-funded health scheme. How many resist the temptation of the latter?

As Labour gradually negotiates its way out of its old socialist positions, notably with Clause IV, it generates ample opportunity for hypocrisy. The behaviour of these two-homes, share-buying neo-socialists is changing faster than the party's old rhetoric, which cannot keep up, leaving it trapped in embarrassing double-speak.

Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, sent the right skipping down the road of hypocrisy long ago. But, as Anthony Sampson says, "even Thatcher came to realise that her vision of society without society, an entrepreneurial, ruthless new Britain, was not what the British themselves wanted." They are still picking up the pieces, trying to recreate the family values they did their best to destroy.

Amid the political confusion, the population is left floundering on a moral scree. "There is a yearning for people to return to elementary moral virtues, such as integrity and commitment," says Geoff Mulgan of Demos. "We distrust people who have no centring of values. We greatly respect businessmen, for example, if they display those virtues, even if we don't necessarily agree with the people."

It is neither an accident nor a sign of increasing moral weakness that hypocrisy seems inescapable today. Accelerated social and economic change makes it inevitable that our beliefs and morals will be continually outmoded. So it is perhaps time to accept that a measure of hypocrisy is a necessary evil, time to judge ourselves less harshly. As Irma Kurtz says: "We need hypocrisy to protect ourselves from each other and from ourselves. We need to be hypocritical in order to survive."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
peopleWarning - contains a lot of swearing
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

    Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

    £8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

    Recruitment Genius: Appointment Maker / Telesales

    £15000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading supplie...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Field Sales Executive - Dereham

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is proud to b...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project