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How does hypocrisy play a role in a civilized society?

Hypocrisy, in the sense of professing to believe one thing but actually practicing, or believing in, something different, is essential in any civilized society. Under the broad spectrum of hypocrisy come such survival techniques as good manners, politeness, diplomacy, euphemism, those ‘little white lies’, and wisely-formulated policies which include ‘the customer is always right’ and ‘money talks’. When we meet a person for the first time, perhaps socially, in a business or work situation, or through family, and that person proves to be the most utterly boring person we’ve ever met, we would be extremely ill-mannered, not to mention it is unwise to tell this person we can’t bear another second of their company, and march off. Instead, we’ll nod politely, and find somewhere else that we need to be as soon as possible.

This form of hypocrisy is known as good manners. Similarly, if another person is introduced to us as a cattle farmer, and proceeds to speak proudly of their business, we shouldn’t instantly inform our new acquaintance that we believe all cattle-farmers to be little better than sadistic murderers of innocent creatures, parasites who make money by gratifying barbaric and carnivorous humans, and then throw a handy bottle of blood all over the surprised farmer.

No matter how fierce a vegetarian we might be at heart, we’ll instead pretend to listen politely while quickly seeking an excuse to diplomatically move away. This is also good manners. Whatever we might think of another person, or their beliefs, or their business, or whatever else about them there might be that we don’t like, to make our distaste or even disgust obvious is a bad thing to do. We can hardly avoid meeting many people we might disapprove of while in company with others to whom we give, or owe, respect. To behave badly towards another in that company is to behave badly to all present.

Where hypocrisy becomes distasteful and unpleasant in circumstances where a person professes  for instance  good intentions, or good deeds, when we know perfectly well they’d take the last piece of candy from a starving baby. In other words, we know they’re lying about themselves. Again, because we live in a civilized society, we usually don’t want to, or can’t, call them a filthy hypocrite loudly to their faces or to people we know will pass our comments back to them.

We might keep quiet not because we condone their behavior but because to publicly condemn them might bring about unfortunate consequences to others, not to mention ourselves. Every day we make the decision to speak to or about people in a certain way; to behave towards them in one manner or another. If in every instance we behaved exactly the way we felt, we wouldn’t last long in any civilized society. We need to temper our reactions, our responses, with the realization that our need to live within a community involves civilized behavior. Mostly we do this without much, if any, conscious thought. But when the necessity arises to behave in a way at odds with our conscience, we weigh up the alternatives, to ourselves and to others, and respond accordingly.

It isn’t clear cut, not black and white, at all. A small child might see its parent behave politely towards someone that child knows is despised by the parent, and feel outraged, even without knowing the term, ‘hypocrisy’. A wise parent will explain as simply as possible what has happened and why. Even without the advantage of wise parents, the child will in any case grow to learn how to instinctively respond to others so that their place in the community – civilized society – remains as pleasant as possible. When a really important struggle with one’s conscience arises, and it doesn’t usually arise all that frequently, then we can only make the best possible decision we can, taking the needs of others into consideration as well as our personal need to be honest. There is no shame in finding hypocrisy might be the best policy. Just call it good manners, and avoid lying about yourself: that’s the bad sort of hypocrisy which is, after all, also bad manners.

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