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In Defense of Hypocrisy. Motes and Beams and suchlike…

July 3, 2015


I get frustrated by the nature of most attacks on hypocrisy these days.  I think what bugs me is that such accusations are so politically unidirectional.  The right “owns” hypocrisy.  Anyone who preaches any version of social justice is liable to be taken down as a “hypocrite” at some point.

You hardly ever hear it used in the other direction do you?  You never hear “well – that Alan Greenspan may preach unfettered capitalism, but I know for a fact that he lives in an anarchist squat with only one change of loincloth”.

(Although of course, Chomsky’s description of “Socialism for the Rich” would qualify – the structural means whereby the wealthy secure their own welfare protection at public expense.  We should all do a bit more with that.)

But I think I have a separate problem with the primacy and strategic deployment of “hypocrisy” in popular discourse anyway.  Here, after all, is the most famous explanatory exemplification of hypocrisy.

Matthew 7: 3-5

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

The syntactic arrangement of beams and motes within the parable deserves a little consideration.

When lefty-liberal-dogoodery types are accused of hypocrisy by those on the right it seems to be on the basis that unless you live in the ghetto then you have no right to complain about the oppression of the poor by the rich.  In other words, the syntax of the biblical illustration is usually reversed.  Instead of people with beams having no right to criticise those with motes, it’s declared that those with motes have no right to attack those with beams.  Leave the beams alone until each and every mote on earth has been eradicated.  Thousandaires have no right to criticise Billionaires is how the whole mote and beam thing usually  translates nowadays.

If Billy Bragg and Polly Toynbee have anything resembling a roof over their heads, they have no business complaining about poverty.  Of course, there is a degree of material security that is a precondition of being part of any sort of commentariat.  Those scratching for crumbs in the gutter do not get their own newspaper column.  And given the prevalence of unpaid internships in modern journalism which require aspirant journalists to be supported by their families while they train, a failure to exit the right sort of birth canal will preclude you, your children and your children’s children from ever having a career in the media.  Since poor people will never be able to speak on their own behalf, anyone who does speak on behalf of the poor can be instantly dismissed as a middle class hypocrite.  Neat eh?

Of course, the point about hypocrisy as a meaningful and debilitating sin is a refusal to admit the possibility of motes or beams in one’s own eyes.  In my experience, the bigger the beam, the greater the moral blindness.  People who know they have motes in their own eyes are sometimes unable to see beams in other people’s eyes.

The difference in scale between motes and beams does indeed have contemporary relevance.  If, for example, you denounce welfare fraudster for defrauding taxpayers of a few hundred whatevers, while squirreling millions away in offshore secret untaxed accounts – then you’re a beamster.  Indeed, our entire dominant politico-moral economy consists of beamsters using their beams to hit the motesters over the head.

If hypocrisy is defined as not living up to certain ideals, not living a life that is perfectly congruent with certain aspirational values – then the only people who are not hypocrites are those with no ideals, values or aspirations whatsoever.

And if hypocrisy is the worst sin on earth, the sin against the Holy Ghost,  the one sin to be avoided at all costs – then only the completely depraved can be saved.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    What with all the “politics of envy” rhetoric being cranked up again…

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