Sunday, July 22, 2012

Is Hypocrisy a Sin?

I recently read a blog post that reignited something that I've been thinking about for quite a while.

In a nutshell, Frank Bruni, writes about meeting someone from his college days who has gone through a tremendous transformation from rampaging Roman Catholic to agnostic.  The interesting "kicker" for the piece is that this fellow is a medical doctor who has performed abortions for years because of his experience dealing with women.

The part that is of particular relevance to me is a passage where this fellow told Bruni about his experience performing an abortion for an extremely vocal anti-abortion crusader.

He shared a story about one of the loudest abortion foes he ever encountered, a woman who stood year in and year out on a ladder, so that her head would be above other protesters’ as she shouted “murderer” at him and other doctors and “whore” at every woman who walked into the clinic.

One day she was missing. “I thought, ‘I hope she’s O.K.,’ ” he recalled. He walked into an examining room to find her there. She needed an abortion and had come to him because, she explained, he was a familiar face. After the procedure, she assured him she wasn’t like all those other women: loose, unprincipled.

She told him: “I don’t have the money for a baby right now. And my relationship isn’t where it should be.”

“Nothing like life,” he responded, “to teach you a little more.”

A week later, she was back on her ladder.

This isn't the only time that I've heard about anti-abortion crusaders going in for an abortion.   Here's a page about a study about anti-choice women who have come for abortions offering similar anecdotes.  And here are some of the quotes:

"In 1990, in the Boston area, Operation Rescue and other groups were regularly blockading the clinics, and many of us went every Saturday morning for months to help women and staff get in. As a result, we knew many of the 'antis' by face. One morning, a woman who had been a regular 'sidewalk counselor' went into the clinic with a young woman who looked like she was 16-17, and obviously her daughter. When the mother came out about an hour later, I had to go up and ask her if her daughter's situation had caused her to change her mind. 'I don't expect you to understand my daughter's situation!' she angrily replied. The following Saturday, she was back, pleading with women entering the clinic not to 'murder their babies.'" (Clinic escort, Massachusetts)

"We saw a woman recently who after four attempts and many hours of counseling both at the hospital and our clinic, finally, calmly and uneventfully, had her abortion. Four months later, she called me on Christmas Eve to tell me that she was not and never was pro-choice and that we failed to recognize that she was clinically depressed at the time of her abortion. The purpose of her call was to chastise me for not sending her off to the psych unit instead of the procedure room." (Clinic Administrator, Alberta)
 "My first encounter with this phenomenon came when I was doing a 2-week follow-up at a family planning clinic. The woman's anti-choice values spoke indirectly through her expression and body language. She told me that she had been offended by the other women in the abortion clinic waiting room because they were using abortion as a form of birth control, but her condom had broken so she had no choice! I had real difficulty not pointing out that she did have a choice, and she had made it! Just like the other women in the waiting room." (Physician, Ontario)
 "The sister of a Dutch bishop in Limburg once visited the abortion clinic in Beek where I used to work in the seventies. After entering the full waiting room she said to me, 'My dear Lord, what are all those young girls doing here?' 'Same as you', I replied. 'Dirty little dames,' she said." (Physician, The Netherlands)

 Usually I find that people who hear about this sort of thing have some sort of negative emotional reaction towards hypocrisy and leave it there.  But I have the sneaking suspicion that something very important is happening here.  I wonder if people who fall on the "conservative" line of thinking might simply not consider hypocrisy an actual sin.

I have wondered for quite a while if the divide between people often comes from people holding different sets of moral values.  I first noticed this with regard to a controversy in my home town involving the mayor. This woman, who was a neo-conservative absolutely loathed the small and large "g" greens who dominated city council before and after her term of office.  She got caught absolutely red-handed plagiarizing a speech that she delivered at some municipal function.  I remember that many of my friends were absolutely furious about it, but I noticed that most of her supporters seemed to be genuinely surprised that anyone cared one way or the other.

I live in a university town and most of my friends are intellectuals of one stripe or another.  In contrast, most of the people who supported this past mayor were involved in business.  I came to the conclusion that for writers, teachers and scientists, there probably is no greater crime than that of stealing the ideas of someone else, because this is the capital by which they make a living and define their standing in the community.  In contrast, for business people words and ideas are just tools for encouraging people to purchase their products.  In contrast, business people often think that levying any sort of taxation at all is a tremendous sin---perhaps this is because money (or capital) is their stock-in-trade.  Many intellectuals similarly cannot fathom this view that taxation is inherently sinful---since as long as they get value for the money, they consider it just the price of civilization.

Thinking about this example has got me thinking about the abortion one.

People who are pro-choice usually look at the examples I quoted above and see them as examples of complete moral bankruptcy.  But, I would suggest that is because people who are "liberal" in the original sense of the word put an enormous value on the concept of intellectual courage and curiosity.  Conservatives in general, and religious conservatives in particular, do not greatly value either of these qualities.  Instead, they value submission to authority and conformity.

I know that Christianity makes a great pretence about helping the poor, etc.  But if you look at the actual behaviour of the hierarchy of most denominations---especially conservative ones---it becomes obvious that over-riding teaching of the church is "Shut up and do what you are told!"   And the theology of the most rabidly anti-abortion denominations often seems to boil down to some sort of cosmic fascist state.  You must do as the great Fuhrer in the sky demands or else you will be sent to the eternal Auschwitz after your death.

Please note that when an institution is all about submission to authority, actual behaviour is of less importance than the attitude.  Rebels who reject the idea that they should be submitting to authority are far, far more dangerous to the status quo than criminals who, for one reason or another, end up breaking the rules.  (This is why political crimes are punished more severely than all others in totalitarian societies.)

If we understand this point, then it becomes obvious what is going on when someone who is a loud and vocal opponent of abortion has one.  The actual abortion itself is not nearly as bad as the fact that some people refuse to accept that the process is evil or immoral.  Abortion activists are ultimately protesting that women and doctors are putting themselves ahead of the revealed teachings of the church and making their own decisions about what is or is not a "sin".  After all, according to church teaching all people sin and the only route for salvation is through the intercession of grace.  Having an abortion might be worse than stealing a candy bar, but ultimately the Hitler in the Sky considers them both to be worth a ticket to the eternal concentration camp.

Hypocrisy is an homage that vice renders to virtue.  ~Fran├žois, Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, 1678

 The quotation above makes the same point.  If we simply understand that the word "virtue" means not some sort of universal or commonly understood truth, but rather the dogma of the institution you support (either the Roman Catholic church or the Republican party, for example), then "Hypocrisy is the homage that people pay to authority."   If you will not be a hypocrite, then you will invariably be a rebel.  And rebels are far more dangerous to authoritarian institutions than people who merely transgress the rules.

Looked at from this way, a lot of conservative behaviour makes a great deal of sense.  When anti-homosexual pastors and politicians get caught hiring gay prostitutes, their willingness to be furtive instead of rebellious means that they still support the hierarchy.  Similarly, when conservatives rail against government spending but wallow in the pork barrel for their constituency, the hypocrisy means that they are "team players" instead of dangerous "socialists" who want to throttle business.

I don't know where this insight leads me, but I have the feeling that it could be harnessed to improve the way people promote a better way of looking at the world.

For one thing.  A lot of people think that it is just enough to point out the hypocrisy and expect people to change.  But that doesn't happen because hypocrisy simply isn't a sin for conservatives.  That woman who got the abortion and then went back up on the stepladder to protest was a dutiful daughter of the church who suffers from original sin.  The real sinners are the "rebel angels" who think that they know better than the church about what is, and is not a sin.  Rubbing this woman or her fellow believers noses in their hypocrisy will not change their minds.

If we want to change people's attitudes about things like abortion, on the other hand, I think we need to go deeper than the issue itself.   Instead, we have to try to do two things.

Ideally, we should be teaching people to be "liberal" in the original sense of the word.  That is, we should be teaching everyone who will listen that they should be intellectually courageous and curious.  They should follow ideas where they go instead of being afraid of the implications.  The social consequence of this is that we need to develop institutions in society that encourage this sort of behaviour.  It isn't just the church that discourages critical thinking, our schools, the workplace, the bureaucracy, etc, all thrive on the model of "shut up and do what you are told".  Of course, none of this can change overnight, but until we understand the problem, it is impossible come up with a solution.

It is impractical to expect all citizens to become Socrates, though.  I would suggest, therefore, that we should also be developing role models and authorities who can counter-balance the authorities that conservatives lean upon.  People of good will often have the mistaken belief if we reject the authority of the Pope to pronounce on moral issues that no one should be able to do so.  But this misses the point that we appeal to authority all the time in life---doctors, mechanics, engineers, plumbers, accountants, etc.  Why should moral issues be any different?

The difference is that a plausible moral authority should be willing to defend her position using logical argument instead of an appeal to force.  The problem isn't that the Pope sets himself up as a moral authority, but rather that he is a bogus authority who's ultimate argument is "if you don't knuckle under, I'm going to kick you out of the church", and "God is going to torture you forever after you die".   In contrast, it might be practically impossible to work through all the complex reasoning that a philosopher goes through to justify a position (after all, how many people do you know who would make the effort to read a monstrous blog post like this one?), but if someone wanted to, the option is open.  We trust our mechanic to do the right thing, but if we wanted to, we know we could do enough research to understand why it is he says he has to do the things he says he needs to do in order to get the engine on your car working.

When I was a child my mother used to tell me to do things and when I asked "why", her response was to whack me and say "because".  The difference in attitude could be as simple as her saying instead, "there's a good reason, but I simply do not have the time to explain it to you right now", or even, "I don't really know how to explain it, but I do believe that this is the best course of action and I have a responsibility to give you direction until you get old enough and have enough experience and knowledge to be able to make choices for yourself."   You don't have to be Einstein to make this substitution.  In fact, it could just be a rote sentence that everyone in our society ends of saying without really understanding.  But the distinction is one that discourages empty submission to authority and hypocrisy, as such I think that we should try it.


Anonymous said...

Liberalism mustn't become the new Fuhrer, though. Can be a trap.

- A random guy who follows tao's teachings

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I don't think you've been following my argument. I made pains to write that I was concerned with "liberal" in the original meaning of the word, which is a tendency to be intellectually courageous and curious. This is an attitude that is antithetical to all forms of unjustifiable authority. It simply cannot become, as you write, "another fuhrer".

Paul Sunstone said...

Very thought-provoking!

As you might be aware, Robert Altemeyer has written about "authoritarian followers". His description of their peculiar psychology supports your own view here.

I don't know whether such people are born or made. If made, education might work to ameliorate the problem. But if their psychology is more deeply rooted in their genes, what can be done then?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I've always been wary of solving problems by educating children instead of their parents taking action. So I'm only suggesting education as part of the solution.

Moreover, I am a firm believer in the idea that authoritarian personalities only "get away" with their behaviour when the "ordinary folks" sit on the sidelines and won't get involved. The Roman Church, for example, would be a very different institution if all the people who've gagged and left it instead stayed in the pews and fought against the ecclesiastic leadership.

I tend to think that our society encourages authoritarian structures because it is a stable way to organize all sorts of institutions---church, army, business, etc. Small communities used to counter-balance it through the informal, self-organizing that used to happen (e.g. barn-raising, town hall meetings, etc.) But as community has withered and died in the last hundred years, the centre became increasing more powerful than the periphery.

My hope is that the "long emergency" we are entering will for people to rebuild local community as a survival mechanism. My other hope is that the "open source" movement will create new forms of self-organizing counter balances to authority.

Finally, I think that we are long overdue for people of good will to organize free schools that teach people of all ages how to work together in groups in order to come to really democratic decision-making. I think the "occupy" people tried to do this, but my read was that they had a doctrinaire commitment to formal consensus---which I have found is a very easily manipulated system that is not really democratic.

Paul Sunstone said...

Out of curiosity, what would be a less manipulable alternative to formal consensus?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


In my experience, the greatest problem with formal consensus is that proponents don't understand what economists would call "opportunity costs". That is, they emphasize certain virtues, such as inclusivity to the exclusion of things like efficiency and timeliness.

So, for example, the formal consensus systems that I participated in took so long to come to any decision that they excluded anyone who didn't have a lot of spare time to spend at endless, very long meetings. As a result, the process was dominated by the unemployed and single people, whereas family people with jobs and small children simply couldn't participate.

Any system I would advocate, therefore, would have some mechanism to allocate time spent in discussion according to some sort of rational process. For example, one system that I think would make a lot of sense would be to give each member of the assembly a unit of time that would be transferable. So if each person at the convention was given a marble worth one minute of time they could either use that minute themselves----and be forbidden to speak again----or they could find someone that they agree with, who is a good speaker and give them their marble. This way we end up with a rational allocation of time to a small number of people who really do represent the different points of view in the assembly.

In contrast, what I usually see at assemblies is a conference facilitator who gets to pick and choose who it is that gets to speak and wields enormous control over the assembly by doing so.

There are a large number of "fiddles" that people can use to dominate and control a meeting, and most people are far to naive to see them. I do have some faith, however, that it is possible to create systems of governance that can allow people to work together in a genuinely inclusive, democratic manner.

I think a lot of very good work could be done in this field. Unfortunately, I am so time poor that I never seem to have any time to work on this sort of thing.