‘Hypocrisy’ has lost its meaning

“We should call out hypocrisy when we see it. For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

— Peter Buttigieg, the Washington Times, June 28, 2019

"Hypocrisy" — it’s been a good word, a handy word, but the steam has gone from it.

Simon Winchester’s history of the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that any word, no matter how revered, must have a distinct meaning to be retained as a valid entry. It cannot continue as a superfluous collection of vowels and consonants.

“Hypocrisy” fails to meet that standard. It no longer discriminates (if you will excuse the term) one political stance from another. It can be retired as archaic. The older, more established word, "liar," will have to do its work.

Don’t blame the word itself. Again, it was a perfectly OK word, derived, my desktop dictionary tells me, from the Middle English. It has merely been overcome by the speed of modern life.

There was a time, please know, when it took decades to sort out the political hypocrisies of one’s era. Such was William Allen White’s task in “Masks in a Pageant,” which the playwright David Mamet calls the best political study ever written. Yet, White was able to identify only a dozen or so genuine hypocrites in 600 pages.

Now, thanks to the Internet, thousands of hypocrisies are spotted every second, practically instantaneously. Here are some plucked just now from no less an authority than Facebook:

  • A former director of the FBI answered, “I don’t know,” “I don’t recall” and “I don’t remember” 236 times while under oath before writing a book about his years in office.
  • The daughter of a past presidential candidate who frequently denounces “white privilege” got a job out of college paying $900,000 per year.
  • An opinion survey finds that those Americans who worry about foreign interference in our elections are also in favor of non-citizens voting in those elections.
  • Building a wall on our southern border, blocked by Congress, would cost less than the Obamacare website approved by Congress.
  • More troops and armament were sent to arrest a retired presidential campaign advisor at his Washington home than were sent to defend a U.S. ambassador at Benghazi.
  • A congresswoman who opposes voter ID laws as racist requires that those attending her political rallies show a photo ID.

To pin the label on anyone seems a waste of time. It is particularly disturbing as a tactical matter that our conservative media, outgunned as it is, wastes so much energy on it (that and lecturing those who obviously have rejected the U.S. Constitution that they should respect it).

For it is evident the typical campaigner has grown immune to the word’s sting, or, for that matter, to any of dozens of other denigrations in the political lexicon, i.e., dissimulator, posturer, affected, specious, empty, insincere, deceitful, dishonest, mendacious, duplicitous, sanctimonious and the once useful phony.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected]