The word hypocrisy derives the old Greek ‘hypo’ – under – and ‘krites’ – interpreter. It means someone who presents an interpretation of the fundamental (foundation, substance) truth, and therefore distorts it. A related word hypostases is used in Christian Theology to refer to the persons of God in the Trinity, meaning fundamental (substrate, foundational) beings or essences. An interpretation of the world is not in itself a lie, or an untruth; it is perhaps a subjective presentation, a choice to represent things in a way that is not entirely true; but then, it’s not entirely false either. A politician who tells the country we need to tighten our belts, while buying expensive clothes for themselves at the same time, is not lying, as such; that the country needs to ‘tighten its belt’ may still be true.
John Naughton in his excellent substack newsletter this morning referenced a Václav Havel piece on how power changes people; that a merchant would put in his window a sign saying ‘workers of the world unite’, instead of the truth which would read ‘I’m afraid of being singled out as not loyal enough’. There is no true deference to power; only fear of persecution. Nick Cohen’s piece in the Observer, to which Naughton refers, argues that the ideological oppressor prefers it this way, as they know that fear is less contagious than what Yeats called passionate intensity. Only John Hurt with those dark eyes could have played Winston Smith in 1984, a role that still haunts me.
And yet it is a broader, deeper, more pervasive thing than even that. Hypocrisies – taking its root, interpretations of our own truth – are how we construct our own worlds, our own identities and project them into the world. The merchant’s ‘workers of the world unite’ may have been something that they believed in, though perhaps not so passionately as, under normal circumstances, to broadcast it from their window. Similarly the more immediate motivation for the display may have been fear of oppression, but what if it had been to impress a love interest whose politics more strongly aligned with the ruling party? Would it remain an untruth? Hypocrisy is neither pejorative nor absolute; who is to say what ‘true belief’ is, that it can be judged against the statements or deeds of a person? Perhaps hypocrisy is more a political tool with which to strike down your enemy and undermine their rhetoric.
It appeared again today in the hypocrapalooza that is Brexit, as the British government announced yet another concession to the inevitable. In this instance it was manufacturing standards compliance, wherein Global Britain will persist in its adherence to the European CE standards for another year. It is doing so because the government ‘recognis[es] the impact of the pandemic on businesses,’ not because the country isn’t ready, the inspectors aren’t in place, or that the systems aren’t defensible by international standards. The interesting thing is that no-one asked for it, because of the pandemic. The manufacturing lobby rep in his comment in the piece didn’t refer to the pandemic at all, but to the other issues with the system that have now been kicked to touch.
Global Britain is presenting an interpretation on its truth, but no one really believes them anymore, just as no one really believed Winston Smith’s professions of fealty. Nick Cohen made the argument that the government prefers it when people pretend to believe, rather than admit they are more motivated by fear. What happens when it’s the government itself that pretends to believe? Witness Ron deSantis in Florida, struggling to support vaccines and mask mandates in schools, trying to find a path to re-election. This hollowing out of substance in political elites is the result of a neoliberal marketisation of politics, a power calculus that works like a machine. With all the analytics and AI, it’s becoming a literal machine. The young idealistic politician may argue that the ends justify the means, but then the means become the ends; and so we lose our way.
2 thoughts on “Hypocrisy, Identity and Emptiness”
I did not know the Greek origin of the word hypocrite, but I wonder is you thesis valid? At the end of the day we cannot substitute the origin of words for what they mean. Hypocrisy does not mean the same as the words ‘under’ and ‘interpretation’, as you appear to suggest (have I misread this?). Surely ‘hypocrisy’ means advocating double standards or ‘doing one thing and saying another’? Thus, hypocrisy is indeed a disparaging attribute and if it does not involve lying, as you suggest, surely it does involve ‘living a lie’?
I get your point. I think I may have omitted some context…
In a sense (especially in a theological sense), all human truth is lies, as it corrupts absolute truth with subjective interpretation; all language layers meaning on ‘essence’. That’s my understanding of the etymology. In Christian theology, the issue of ‘hypostases’ has to do with the Trinity, and a centuries old battle over the nature of God. There’s one God, but with three ‘hypostases’, usually translated as ‘persons’, but then the conjunctive phrasing is the point of controversy, and in particular the issue of the double procession – sort of like the Church version of the chicken and the egg problem: If there are three ‘persons’ or ‘hypostases’, who comes first? Remember the creed – ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’… Point is that absolute truth rests in God, theologically speaking, and anything else – even something ‘begotten not made of one being with the Father’, or words like that – is relative to that absolute position.
Of course ‘hypocrisy’ in its modern usage means as you say – people who say one thing, but do or think another. I think what the etymology (and theological approach) reveals is the persistence and prevalence of hypocrisies, or hypocrisy as a way of being: when asked what we truly believe, few of us can articulate anything approaching coherence. Usually we offer platitudes or vagueness: I believe in love, in other people, in happiness, in life after death. If our baseline truth is that vague, how can we proclaim (as something ‘true’) anything that is not hypocritical?