Full disclosure: Catcher In The Rye is very high on my Emperor’s New Clothes List: pop culture references I suspect most people claim to like because they don’t want to admit they don’t get them. I’ve read it and I will openly say, I hate it. Imagine my dismay then to find we are becoming a culture of Holden Caulfields.
If there’s anything the book gets right it is the self-important arrogance of the adolescent. The world weary, know-it-all, contemptuousness of the teenager convinced he has it All Figured Out. With the special brand of sanctimoniousness that comes with not having lived long enough to let yourself down, the young find it very easy to judge the failures of others. It is as we grow up and inevitably fall short of our own ideals that we develop charity. Few people can be quite as cavalierly judgmental as the adolescent because we have become familiar with our own weaknesses. The Caulfields of this world however are always on the look out for the faintest whiff of hypocrisy, ready with sneering disgust for any “phony” who falls short of their principles.
Everyone despises a hypocrite, but I think our idea of what constitutes one has shifted slightly but significantly. If hypocrisy is “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform” then there is a sense in which we are all hypocrites. Don’t we all at least sometimes fail to hold to the standards of behaviour we revere? But the full reading of the definition I have chosen is “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense”. It is that last word that should make all the difference. It is the pretense of perfection that makes the truly despicable hypocrite. Yet if we hold our principles along with humility and honesty about our failures to live up to them, are we hypocrites or just human?
Unfortunately we seem to have decided to demand nothing less than perfection. We are ready with rabid glee to tear down anyone who can ever be caught out acting against belief. And since this perfection is impossible, we have decided to throw away any “pretense” at virtue, lest we too earn the label of phony. My generation’s entire sense of humor is based on this fear of hypocrisy. If we refuse to take anything seriously we can’t be hypocritical. The hipster subculture makes a whole lifestyle, complete with fashion accessories, out of hating anything mainstream, sold out, fake.
In this atmosphere, the manners that were once the basis for civil discourse have been thrown away as pharisaical. Cynicism is now equated with wisdom, derision and contempt with honesty, vulgarity with forthrightnesss. Look at what passes for punditry these days! Speaking of changing definitions, there’s a word that most of us don’t associate so much with its proper meaning: one who expresses opinions upon a subject they are well informed about, as with the style in which these opinions are delivered. Belligerence, condescension, and juvenile pantomimed expressions of scorn are de rigueur.
The whole point of manners is to fake the virtues we don’t possess so that social convention makes us behave even when we are disinclined to do so. Call it hypocrisy if you like, call it fake or play-acting; I will call it practice. When I teach my children to say please and thank you and they parrot those words back to me before they even know their meaning, it isn’t hypocrisy. It’s practice. Eventually gratitude will hopefully come naturally to them because they were reminded of its importance from their infancy.
Perhaps if I engage in the hypocrisy of common decency and kindness, it will become a habit so ingrained in my being that it is truly part of who I am. If I fake respect for those whose opinions I despise, I may eventually come round to feeling respect and love towards them as persons instead of just simulating the emotions. If I fake discretion because it is polite, I may come round to appreciating the quality. In sport we tell athletes to envision the victory. In employment we recommend the job seeker to dress for the job he wants. It’s time to start dressing for the civility we ought to have. All this puritanically sincere animosity for each other may be a natural phase to pass through in adolescence, but as a society it’s time we grew up.
(Photo by Sharon Sinclair https://www.flickr.com/photos/128745475@N07/18968422444)