STEPHEN CARTER: A Little Bit of Hypocrisy Goes a Long Way.
Let’s begin with what ought to be common ground: It’s wrong to use the word “hypocrite” for individuals who simply fail to live up to their own standards. Were that the definition, all of us would be hypocrites, because all of us do things, pretty much every day, that we know we shouldn’t.
The hypocrite is something different — a person who pretends to an unearned virtue. Abraham Lincoln once entertained his generals with the story of a teetotaler who was offered some lemonade and then told by his host that the drink would taste better with a bit of brandy in it. The teetotaler answered that he had no objection, as long as the brandy was added “unbeknown” to him. 1 This is exactly what the word hypocrisy has traditionally described: The teetotaler did not have a brief moment of weakness. He wanted the benefit of public virtue while maintaining in private what his admirers would have considered a vice.
Pastors in the 19th century liked to illustrate hypocrisy with the tale of a man who was on trial for public drunkenness. When the bartender was asked on the witness stand whether he recognized the defendant, he replied that he did, and that he recognized the judges, too. The point was that the court was sitting in judgment on a man who had done what they themselves had done.
You know, like Hollywood people condemning sexual harassment.