Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is hypocrisy ever a value?

In the New York Times blogs, Robert Wright wrote an essay about the ever-decreasing sense of privacy which we have in our digital age, especially if we're famous. Not much new here, but towards the end, he discusses Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's concept of "Defining Deviancy Down." Basically, as people do bad things in public more often, we get numb to them, and they start to seem less bad. Wright mocks this as hypocrisy:
In this view, one ingredient of an effective moral system is hypocrisy. Everyone purports to support a rule that many of these people in fact violate, but so long as the violations are rarely publicized, the number of hypocrites doesn’t grow, and the rule — in this case the norm of monogamous fidelity — stays more or less intact; at least, it stays strong enough to keep the whole system of marriage from collapsing.

What I found interesting is that Judaism supports exactly the point of view that Wright dismisses. Basically, if I commit some sin in private, then I've sinned. But, if I commit that same sin in public (b'farhessia) then I've done two things: I've sinned, and I've also inherently announced that I'm not the least bit ashamed of that sin. That it isn't, in effect, a sin at all. I've set an example for others to follow, and made it, at least in theory, more likely that they'll sin, too.

[Let it be known that there is a counter discussion about how sinning in private, but not in public, means that we fear the opinions of our neighbors more than we fear God. That's not a good thing, in case you're wondering. So, the sages aren't saying that hypocrisy is good, just that it's more complicated than simply that.]

Let me give you an example: one year, I got very weak towards the end of Yom Kippur. I thought I was going to pass out. The next year, worried that it was going to happen again, I had some power-bars stashed away in my office, in case I needed them (luckily, I didn't). But, I never, for one second, thought about eating them in public. To do so would have been an insult to everyone else who was there, trying to make it through a fast day. As a Rabbi, it would also have been a powerful statement that fasting isn't really that big of a deal. No, I don't think that anyone would have seen me eating and said, "well, that's it. I'm going out for a burger." But, it would have been a small mark against observing a tradition, to some, at least.

Maybe the adultery issue is even more realistic. Is it so unbelievable to think that, the more people who commit adultery, the more likely some people are to do it? Again, not in a conscious, "well, that sure looks like fun" way, but in the more subtle way of adjusting our assumptions and expectations. And, if that does happen, then isn't there some merit in keeping our infidelities (and other sins) quiet? Let me be clear again - I'm not saying that adultery, or any sin, is ok, so long as you do it in private! I'm just wondering if, if you are going to sin, is there at least some merit in doing it quietly? Is that really hypocritical? If it is hypocritical, is that the worst thing?

Real questions - not sure I know exactly what I think, but I'd love to hear what you do...


LizStrom said...

Perhaps the problem is framing this a "hypocrisy" rather than asholding different standards for public and private behavior, or in some cases allowing for nuanced response to complicated questions. Hypocrisy means proclaiming one set of values while practicing another, but that's not really what is at issue in some of these examples. So, using your example of the Power Bar - had you loudly proclaimed that anyone eating on Yom Kippur, even if they were on the verge of fainting, was committing a sin then the Power Bar in your drawer would have been a sign of hypocrisy. But wouldn't you have advised a congregant whose fasting endangered his or her health to break the fast? Doing so privately is just a way of respecting those whose tummies might be grumbling. But it's not hypocrisy.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

fixed a typo...