You and I regard hypocrisy as something not to be encouraged yet politicians seem to get away with
it with very little comment. Is it forgivable for them? Should we regard them as people who have
neurological disorders where they believe themselves in spite of all evidence to the contrary or should
we regard them as criminals but not worthy of punishment?
I find this question difficult, because I can see why there are times when a politician is forced to be
hypocritical — when professing a belief which they do not really believe, is a choice forced on them
as the lesser of two evils — yet I also want to say that hypocrisy is always a vice whenever it occurs,
and we should without reservation desire our politicians not to be hypocrites.
First off, let me say that the reason we are so disinclined to comment on the hypocrisy of politicians is
that we are cynical and disillusioned with them. The reason politicians are so inclined to hypocrisy is
that they are cynical and disillusioned with themselves and with us. A sad state of affairs! That still
leaves room for the question whether there might be occasions in politics when hypocrisy is
acceptable, or even required.
One should note that there is a kind of incoherence in making any statement that conveys either
directly or by implication that you do not always say what you believe. 'I sometimes tell lies' is a more
subtle form of the ancient paradox of the Liar (the infamous Cretan who said, 'Everything I say is a
lie'.) To make any statement is in effect to say to an audience, 'Believe that I believe this...'. A
statement which implies that one's words are not always to be believed is therefore self-undermining.
'I intend that you should believe that I believe this, but you shouldn't necessarily believe it, because
this might be one of those occasions when I don't say what I believe.'
It is hardly surprising, in the light of this, that no politician has ever got up and said, 'Occasionally, I
am forced to be hypocritical, but I try to avoid hypocrisy as much as possible!' That sounds like
hypocrisy to me.
The best illustration of a case where hypocrisy can sometimes be lesser of two evils comes from
where religion intersects with politics. Not so very long ago, the profession of atheism — or even the
mere lack of positive religious belief — would have been political suicide. Yet some religious believers
have, or had, sufficient tolerance to realize that a person can be an atheist and still be a fine,
upstanding member of the moral community. Lack of religious belief does not necessarily prevent you
from being a moral and honourable person. It does not necessarily incapacitate you from political
leadership. Thus, at a time of crisis, such as natural disaster or war, it might be required for these
honourable people to go through the motions of prayer, to say the words with solemnity and
conviction. I would regard that is an act of leadership, not hypocrisy.