Friday, November 20, 2009

The Cancer Of Hypocrisy

There are a couple of topics that send me right to my personal soapbox. (That statement will be no surprise to friends who know me well!) One of those topics is encounters with hypocrisy. Meaning people’s ability to act with complete disregard for what they have stated. Or similarly, one’s use of selective memory to avoid linking current actions / statements to past actions / statements.

The ability to change one’s mind can be a strength of character. It is why we inquire intellectually, consider intuitively, learn spiritually, and (hopefully) conclude rationally. As our knowledge expands and our experiences broaden, our conclusions evolve over time IF we take the time to reflect on these. It is what we call maturity or wisdom. If learning is continuous, it is supposedly what differentiates child from adult.

The American public can actually be quite understanding and accommodating to public officials who change their minds on an issue, whose statements of values evolve, whose current actions contrast with their actions in prior periods. I have long opposed political campaigns that reach back 20-30 years and trumpet some youthful indiscretion, early writings, or now-questionable judgments. We all have our skeletons, our tapes we’d like to erase, our do-overs we wish were available, our regrets.

The key to public acceptance of a “change of mind” is that it is an acknowledged CHANGE of one’s position. Meaning that there is a) confirmation of a once-held old position; b) an explanation of what new has been learned (the transition); and c) an acknowledgement that today’s opinion or action is a departure from the past. We may not agree with that new position, and we may be disappointed that the change happened within a particular individual. But if it is a change from a position of integrity, we are able to at least respect that integrity.

On that basis, Nixon’s public “rehabilitation” after his resignation began only after genuinely and finally acknowledged his culpability in the Watergate fiasco. 20 years later, Ted Kennedy presented Gerald Ford with a Profile in Courage award, acknowledging publicly that he was wrong and Ford was right in pardoning Nixon and moving country forward. In the 1980s, George Wallace rejected his past resistance to civil rights and black equality, and acknowledged he was wrong in leading this resistance. Each gained credibility with their change of heart. Few politicians today are willing to follow similar suit.

Hypocrisy is a whole ‘nother matter from integrity. Hypocrisy acknowledges no prior action or statements, even though they in fact existed. Hypocrisy makes no explanation of a change of heart, or an evolved viewpoint. Hypocrisy ignores counterarguments, relevant information, or very real impacts on people resulting from a new position. Hypocrisy manages to live comfortably between conflicting public-serving words (pandering) and self-serving actions.

Why is this discussion important to raise at this time? Because hypocrisy infests so many of our institutions and discussions of the day. The most notable political example of this is within the Republican Party’s wholesale rejection of any new health care reform because “it would raise the federal budget deficit over $1 trillion over 10 years.” So Republicans are now our guardians of federal budget integrity? In my blog of September 18, I reported the history of budget deficits 1969-2009, which showed major deficit jumps during the Reagan/GWBush years, and further large increases with GWBush and a Republican-controlled Congress. Digging further: there are currently 40 Republicans in the U.S. Senate. 25 of these were already in office when GWBush was inaugurated; 15 were elected during Bush’s 2001-2008 terms; 3 are serving their 1st year in office. This means that virtually all of the current U.S. Republican senators protesting budget deficits were all there when the biggest deficits ever were run up. (I suspect the same results would show up looking at Republican tenures in the House.) So why would we give any of these politicians any credibility on this subject? Fight health care on its merits if you wish, but please spare us newly-found and un-credible moral outrage.

We get great pronouncements of moral indignation and expectations from politicians and religious leaders of all affiliations who subsequently are found committing the very same moral failings they railed against. Would-be anti-homosexual and “family value” protectors are found in fact to be what they protest against. Governors who protested federal TARP money are front and center for the photo ops when the those checks are given out to constituents. Anti-corruption prosecutors and governors prove to be corrupt themselves. Religious leaders who condemn perceived “sinners” ignore their founder’s words of love and forgiveness. The Cardinal of Boston gave a funeral mass to Ted Kennedy, yet was strongly criticized by some Catholic leaders because Kennedy did not support the Church’s position on abortion; balanced against Kennedy’s lifetime of committed effort to bring health care, education and opportunity to America’s disadvantaged, who do we think came out the more ethically compassionate in this public argument?

Hypocrisy reveals claims of a “greater purpose” and “higher good” to be, in fact, blatant self-serving personal promotion. Facts are irrelevant; history is not acknowledged; responsibility is not taken; integrity is not present. In this age of video archives and Google Internet searches, one wonders why someone would seek to deny where they have been. The old and new displayed side-by-side. Past meets future. When the two do not match up, both individual and institutional credibility crumbles; credibility gives way to cynicism.
This is what we now see: low approval ratings of politicians from all parties at all governmental levels; declining church enrollments; reduced charitable support; lack of informed dialog. We need to acknowledge our past, whatever it may have been. Then we can build productively on that past, rather than wasting time running away from it. We need to humbly accept that holding high positions of trust is less important than serving honestly in those positions.