What is a hypocrite? I came across a use of the word a while ago that struck me as clearly wrong. Someone was called a hypocrite who was just struggling to live up to his own best ideals. And there's a difference. To call someone a hypocrite is a particularly strong charge. So what is this condition known as hypocrisy, after all?
It seems to me that hypocrisy is deceptively claiming to have, or implying that you have, values that you do not, in fact, embrace. It's often manifested by holding other people to standards that the hypocrite does not actually use to govern his, or her, own conduct, except, on occasion, and then just for show.
Here's the problem. Not everyone who acts in a disappointing way, given their announced ideals, is a hypocrite. Plenty of people say one thing and do another, which is one of the reasons we have clever old prescriptions like "Do as I say, not as I do." Most of us fall short of our ideals in some way. But that's not hypocrisy, in any form. We have another category, or set of categories, for that: Moral weakness, imperfection, or just the common experience of struggling. Moral weakness is a failure to live up to the ideals and values that we do, in fact, embrace. We're all imperfect. We all struggle to act consistently with our highest ideals. But we're not all hypocrites.
Of course, like everything else important in life, there are complications. A man can think he's being wrongly accused of hypocrisy when the charge is actually in a sense at least close to the truth. That's because of the pervasiveness of self deception in our world. A person can consciously think he heartily endorses a value, or a viewpoint, that he really doesn't believe in, as manifested by his ongoing conduct, "when nobody's looking," as we say. In this sort of case, the individual's problem is that he's self deceived about what his values in fact are. That self illusion is usually motivated by a deep unconscious need to feel accepted in a certain group, or else to feel superior to others in some way. It's normally part of a struggle for self esteem. He can announce an allegiance, and negatively judge others who fall short of that standard, and believe he's being sincere and authentic, when he's not, in a thoroughgoing way, but is rather acting very much like a hypocrite - although without, in his peculiar case, the conscious and deliberate intent to deceive others. And, as is the case often in life, I think there can be a spectrum here of flickering self knowledge and self delusion.
Both moral weakness and hypocrisy are wrong, of course, but in different, as well as in overlapping ways. Both can involve behavior out of line with our announced values. But simple weakness of will doesn't itself require any sort of announcement or indication to others, that you have certain values. And it doesn't necessarily involve any form of deception about what those values are. Hypocrisy does. The hypocrite parades values he doesn't actually believe in, and uses them to judge and criticize the actions of others. The self deceived hypocrite, like the moral struggler, is to be pitied and helped. The self aware specimen - the conscious and deliberate deceiver - is more odious and typically more immune to reformation. We consider him to be particularly bad in his conduct because of his self promoting, or aggressive, use of standards that he himself secretly doesn't own or seek to obey. Such hypocrisy is a form of lying and manipulation that is intended to portray the hypocrite as better than others, and as better than he, in fact, is.
We should be careful in our use of this charge. There are plenty of struggling people in the world who don't maliciously pretend to be otherwise, however we might see them covering their tracks, out of embarrassment, or shame, or even a misplaced effort at kindness to others, whose feelings they fear they might hurt. They may often be doing their best, at least, at the time, and in the circumstances. And they normally need our sympathy and encouragement toward a better path, much more than our judgement or condemnation. Sometimes, though, a case of moral weakness is so bad, so disruptive, and so entrenched, that it may require some form of harsh intervention. But our sharpest attitudes of censure are properly reserved for the truly self-aware hypocrite, who nonetheless also always needs, and can sometimes even benefit from, our help. It's just harder to reform or enlighten the genuinely and deliberately hypocritical soul.