Saturday 19 January 2019

Fake it until you make it - hypocrisy is the glue that holds society together

'Pope Francis was reprimanding folks who think of themselves as upstanding Catholics, but don't necessarily lead the lives of decent Christians, contrasting with the honest atheist who does the right thing despite his lack of faith. We've all known examples of each type' Photo: PA News
'Pope Francis was reprimanding folks who think of themselves as upstanding Catholics, but don't necessarily lead the lives of decent Christians, contrasting with the honest atheist who does the right thing despite his lack of faith. We've all known examples of each type' Photo: PA News
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Where would we be without a little hypocrisy?

"Does my bum look big in this?"

"Yes, you look obese - because you are obese."

"How am I doing, doc?"

"Terrible. Get your funeral arrangements in place now."

"Did you ever cheat on me, darling?"

"Yes, with your best friend, actually, and she was a lot better in bed."

Preserve me from those folks who always tell you the unvarnished truth. Life is tough enough as it is without being confronted by endless straight-talking candour.

If we knew every jot and tittle of our neighbour's habits, we probably wouldn't hold them in the same regard, so it's just as well civilisation requires a modicum of hypocrisy to oil the wheels of social intercourse.

And yet the Pope's latest exhortation is that all decent Christians should abhor and eschew hypocrisy. It was "a scandal to say one thing and do another", he preached. "That is a double life." Better, he said, to be an honest atheist than a hypocritical Catholic.

Really? I think I prefer the attitude advanced by another spiritually based organisation, Alcoholics Anonymous, which urges people to aspire towards a virtue (in this case sobriety) which they do not yet possess. "Fake it till you make it," is one of the great mottoes of AA. You may still be, in your heart, hopelessly addicted, but by aspiring to better things, you have a better chance of reaching your goal. Just as, however depressed you may feel inside, you may increase your supply of serotonin by smiling. Putting on a happy face when you're in the depths of despair may be rank hypocrisy, but it may also help to combat that very despair.

Pope Francis was reprimanding folks who think of themselves as upstanding Catholics, but don't necessarily lead the lives of decent Christians, contrasting with the honest atheist who does the right thing despite his lack of faith. We've all known examples of each type.

I used to joke with Maeve Binchy, who was not a believer, that she was already such a good person she didn't need to be a Christian. It was only those of us who were basically awful people who required the spiritual assistance in question.

We can see what Francis is driving at - drawn from that passage in the 'New Testament' saying "By their fruits ye shall know them" - but maybe the pontiff is being a little too black-and-white in the naming of categories. Many people can be good while being somewhat hypocritical, and some people can be bad while being totally honest. Just as many people can slide ambiguously between faith and doubt, or religion and atheism, or agnosticism. But maybe that nuanced and paradoxical view of the human condition is more feminine than masculine: men tend to like to compartmentalise ideas, where women see ambiguities and contradictions, and can live with such ambiguities too.

We all know parents who have sent their children to faith schools even though they are not themselves religious: they just want their kid to get into the best school, and the best school happens to be a faith school. In London, parents cheat outrageously to get their children into a neighbourhood school to which they are not entitled - by faking an address or a postal code which pretends they live in the catchment area.

This is all arrant hypocrisy, but who's to say that a parent isn't "faking it" for the most virtuous of reasons - to obtain a better education for their child, which can be the most decisive element in their future? Strong socialist though she is, the Labour Party's Diane Abbott sent her son to a private school, even though she called for the abolition of private education. But she was doing the best for her boy, and I thought her a better mother for being a hypocrite, in this matter.

Humans are flawed. Surely a Pope knows his own catechism on this point. We make bad decisions: we screw up. And we try to correct it by aspiring to be better.

Does every bride and bridegroom walking up a church aisle truly believe they are taking a sacramental vow which will bind them to a spouse "for better, for worse, in sickness or in health, till death us do part"? Young people are idealistic, and many no doubt do, but plenty more are crossing their fingers and hoping it will turn out that way.

And if the bride's family loathe their in-laws, and the feelings are reciprocated, isn't it better for the common good if they can just "fake it till they make it", and strive to be civil and friendly?

Hypocrisy is a bourgeois attribute, linked with self-interest and social advancement, but it can make life more pleasant and gentle than savage confrontation.

We teach children hypocrisy when we teach them to be polite. We tell them not to say to a neighbour "I don't like you", because that's unkind. And it's civilised to teach such decorum.

There's a distressing form of Alzheimer's called Pick's Disease, in which the frontal lobes of the brain - those that guard social inhibitions - are damaged.

Victims of this form of dementia say the first thing that comes into their head, and often revert to a kind of primitive aggression. Rather than succumb to such behaviour, a British high court judge, Nicholas Wall, killed himself recently at the age of 71, having been diagnosed with it.

No, I think the Pope shows a lack of elasticity in positioning hypocritical Christians against honest atheists. Most people are on a spectrum between honesty and a certain level of social tact, which may be called hypocrisy (just as many people are on a spectrum between faith and doubt).

Oscar Wilde understood aspirational behaviour when he said that "hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue", and he understood humanity when he said that "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars".

Irish Independent

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