Hypocrisy revisited

I don’t like to write about the same topic twice, but in the case of hypocrisy I’m glad to make an exception. In what follows I promote an enhanced flavour of it, so those who believe hypocrisy to be intrinsically unsuitable as a starting point are advised to browse elsewhere. The word ὑπόκρισις is an amalgam of the Greek prefix hypo- (under), and the verb krinein (to sift or decide). ὑποκρίτης means an actor or stageplayer who is utterly devoid of sincerity. The New Testament looks at these figures with disdain. Romans famously loathe them. In Islam, hypocrites are called منافق (munafiq), those professing to the religion while concealing their disbelieve.

I think we should not reduce hypocrisy to the idea of double standards, to paying lip-service and drinking wine while preaching water. The complex entanglement of our reality requires a more refined concept or the hypocritical. If we are always-already involved in a situation, our first utterance will by definition be inconsistent and deemed hypocritical. We may seek to redeem our position but we will get all our statements hurled back at us as proof of our disingenuousness.

What is lacking (and Nietzsche would agree this is a clear symptom of decadence) is the subject matter, the actual thing we are hypocritical about. The hypocrite’s origin on the stage can enlighten us. The context is indispensable if we want to determine if a speech act is hypocritical (in our modern sense of the word). Everything can be said stage, as long as the actor follows the script, and the alcoholic playwright won’t be accused of hypocrisy when he lets his actor preach sobriety.
If you want to be a hypocrite you need to be in the same realm as your interlocutor. You real intentions, however nebulous they may be, must be part of the play.

For hypocrisy to work the speaker and the listener must be part of the same context. It doesn’t matter if that is the stage or the audience. The context of an utterance is the set of utterances we agree as relating to it. For example, the entire script of a play. A statement can change the context in which we interpret it. Consider the case when an actor suddenly shouts “fire!” on stage. The context of his sentence is extended and now includes the sentences on the fire hazard warning signs, because we interpreters agree on this extension.


It is trivial that hypocrisy depends on the context of interpretation. The problem is that we don’t realize how fluid this context can become. If what we say starts to “do” things of its own, the context becomes boundless. There is only one way to make a sensible assessment of hypocrisy. We should call it hypocritical when a statement helps to brings about what it eagerly tries to prevent.

In my view, this is what a true hypocrite sounds like:

“I can’t fly to your conference and ratify that wonderful treaty because I am a man of principle. It would be hypocritical to produce more carbon emissions no matter what…”

“My absolute commitment to the struggle for gun control prevents me to defend myself and shoot that burglar, who broke into my house, and will do so in every other house of our street, killing my neighbours with an automatic rifle last night…”

“I refuse to bribe the doorman, so a gem like myself can never get into the anti-corruption conference…”

These are all instances of lazy thinking. Hypocrisy is considered a moral property of the perpetrator, isolated from the crime. This choice of interpretation narrows down the concept of hypocrisy to the point that it is taken out of context, or more precisely: We assume the most convenient context from the perspective of the moralist.

My idea is that we need to apply the concept of hypocrisy itself in a critical way. This means we need good reasons for each distinction we make (how we sift: krinein). It could be argued that such a procedure leads to infinite regression. The initial analysis might be hypocritical, but what makes each meta-analysis escape the same verdict? If we need a pragmatic way to stop the infinite regression, we can only draw the line exactly there, where our culture has always drawn it: around the boundaries of the individual.

But what if this leads to absurdities such as the ones exemplified above? Shouldn’t we rethink where we draw the boundaries, how we contextualise allegedly hypocritical statements? Shouldn’t we include the results we get when we apply hypocrisy to itself? The criteria for this should be the tacit assumption of the original hypocrisy. The flesh that is hurt by that hypocrisy. This is ignored when we focus only on the abstract idea of hypocrisy.

This doesn’t mean we should step into the morass of relativism. It means we need to see the dangers of relativism more clearly. Our world is changing so rapidly that any guidance by abstract ideas our forebears distilled in another era, can be dangerous.

Introducing hypercrisy

I propose to call the art of applying a concept to itself for just enough iterations, “hypercrisy”. Hypercrisy is an amalgam of the Greek prefix hyper-, meaning “over”, and the verb krinein, meaning “to sift or decide”. Its sole purpose is to arrive at a judgement that is superior considered in the greatest number of contexts. How do we determine what how many iterations are “enough”? When should we stop applying the concept to itself? In practice two or three iterations will do, so the question is of mere academic significance. I would say the iterations never end. All our judgements are preliminary. We are not sitting on God’s throne and we don’t have the ultimate answers (that’s what makes life fun). But doesn’t that mean we fall prey to relativism after all? I think this is not the case. First of all, hypercrisy is a precisely defined procedure of reasoning we can apply, the merit of which, I allow myself the audacity to say, we “hold as true and self-evident”. Second, the danger of “relativism” is neutralized because hypercrisy takes its toxic tendency to undermine everything at face value. The hypercrite can inocculate herself with relativism.

If we could make sane assessments of situations like the ones mentioned above, we would label the presumed hypocrites as hypercrites of a certain degree. It would re-open the debate on the issue their hypocrisy was about. Hypercrite wouldn’t be a derogative designed to shut people up who try to pull themselves at the bootstraps out of the contradiction they’ve fallen into, but a compliment to encourage the self-application of their reasoning to a healthy degree.

You think I should define for you what “healthy” means? Let’s have a hypercritical conversation about that. Coffee’s on me.