Parenting and Hypocrisy


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The origin of the word Hypocrisy is  from the Greek hypokrisis i.e. act of playing a part on the stage. The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines Hypocrisy as �a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially : the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion�  Since time immemorial, hypocrisy has been a central concept in our moral evaluation of behavior.  More specifically, hypocrisy has been a  central concept in identifying how people fail to behave morally.   

Hypocrisy can be approached in several ways. The first approach is to identify hypocrisy simply as the failure to practice what one preaches.  When a person is confronted by such a failure in his or her behavior, a cognitive dissonance with the self-concept is aroused. This results in the behavioral hypocritical responses. This approach is based on the assumption that it is inherently unpleasant to observe that one is not practicing what one preaches and that THEREFORE hypocrisy is a failure to practice what one preaches.

The second approach identifies hypocrisy as a motivation to appear moral without incurring the cost of actually being moral. On this approach, morality is assumed to be a matter of adhering to certain principles such as fairness.  Following such principles enables us to realize social and self-related rewards but sometimes entails costs that we would rather not pay.   However, this approach assumes that hypocrisy invariably implies immorality. Consider, for example, a Palestinian who hides his identity and even professes Semitic attitudes in order to escape persecution in Israel. Such an act may constitute hypocrisy in the sense that the Palestinian publicly endorses a belief that he does not accept. However, because not being such a hypocrite may entail grave consequences for the Palestinian in this case, we might well judge him as being morally correct, and therefore not a hypocrite in the final analysis. This raises the question as to whether we can  identify hypocrisy  as a deviation from the achievement of self-interest instead of as a deviation from the application of moral principles.

On the cognitive dissonance approach, hypocrisy only seems to arise when it is self-diagnosed--that is, when one's actions clash with one's self-concept. On the immorality approach, hypocrisy is a diagnosis of one's own failure to act according to moral principle.  One of the limitations of the literature on hypocrisy has been its exclusive focus on hypocrisy as a judgment ABOUT ONESELF.  Neither the dissonance nor immorality paradigms have been used to investigate people's judgments of hypocrisy IN OTHERS. 

Let us now deviate a little and explore a related concept, that of  �situational irony�. Situational irony is simply a state of affairs that people consider to be ironic.  Such situations may be explicitly labeled beginning with the phrase, "It's ironic that ", as in "It's ironic that the police arrested a policeman for embezzlement�.  However, a study of 250 examples judged to be situational irony taken from news articles, showed that more than 5% referred to cases such as  two Mexican citizens who were arrested in California on charges of drug trafficking, and appealed  extradition to Mexico for trial, on the basis that the police had violated their human rights to obtain information from them.  Now, the same facts that make the situation of the Mexicans ironic also make them hypocrites. 

The bicoherence theory of situational irony suggests that these judgments (hypocrisy and irony) are made on the basis of bicoherent conceptual structure i.e. a hypocrite can have an attitude towards a concept YET not let that attitude affect his behaviour on that concept. Consider the case of hit men for a Columbian drug cartel, who, when caught, complained that authorities violated their human rights in obtaining information from them, a complaint that is both ironic and hypocritical.  Normally, we would expect coherence between the attitude that someone has for human rights, and the influence that human rights have on that person's behavior--that is, if A respects B, then B should influence A.  In the case of the hit men, we find that they respect human rights (according to them) but that human rights do not influence their behavior.  This state of affairs constitutes Bicoherence. 

So, then, can hypocrisy be defined as a policy irony that contravenes universal moral norms, where a policy is a general rule about how to act under given circumstances?  However, a study has found that 25% of judgements identified as hypocrisies do not meet this criterion.  These 25% judged as hypocrites, were simply people who contravened rules that they had made for themselves.  There was no implication that these people had acted immorally but their actions were merely misguided.  Thus identification of someone as a hypocrite seem to constitute a diagnosis of some sort of moral defect, but precisely what kind of defect is not yet clear. This indicates that failure to act according to any given policy, moral or not, could constitute hypocrisy.

Perhaps, when presented with a hypocritical situation, people are briefly aware that the situation is ironic before classifying it specifically as hypocritical. 

Let us look at some ramifications of Hypocrisy. Hypocrisy rears its head early in parenting, but it mostly appears in very subtle ways. Sometimes it is rooted in the confusion that arises when a child hears one thing at school and another at home; one direction from one parent, and a second from the other; one set of guidelines in one classroom, and an entirely different set in the next. In other instances, it stems from simple inconsistency: a child has just learned a lesson or a rule, only to find her parent breaking it, making an exception, or explaining it away. All this is usually harmless enough. It is part of life.

The real problem arises - and this is more widespread than one might think - when children are taught to "do as I say, not as I do." Told this half-jokingly in one situation after another, they gradually learn that there is never anything so black and white that is always good or bad, at least not until they make the wrong choice at the wrong time. When that happens, they get punished for their lapse of judgment. And they will always find the punishment unjust.

Consider these anguished questions from a student at Texas A&M who felt compelled to explain, after the Columbine massacre, why she thought things had "become so bad":

�Why did you ever fall victim to the notion that kids are just as well off being raised by a complete stranger at a day care center than by their own mother or father?

Why do you look down on parents who decide to quit work and stay home to raise their children?

Why do you allow us to watch violent movies but expect us to maintain some type of childlike innocence?

Why do you allow us to spend unlimited amounts of time on the Internet but still are shocked about our knowledge of how to build bombs?�

Accusing as some of these questions may seem, every one of them is valid, and vital for every parent to consider. Many of the issues they raise are too complex to answer in words alone, but they all touch on one central issue: the widespread perception of young adults that their elders are hypocrites.

There is no question that every parent "tries hard" to raise good children. Given the state of our culture, which undercuts parents at every twist and turn, it's impossible to bring up any family at all without trying hard. But there's also no question that despite all our efforts, we are far from the models we ought to be. And the burden is on every parent, not of some vague, dark power called Media.

One common misconception  is the notion that expecting good behavior from your children when you haven�t exactly been a saint yourself is �hypocrisy.� This is not hypocrisy�this is learning from your mistakes. Kids are good at calling adults �hypocrites,� and it works almost every time to make their parents feel guilty and back off on reasonable demands.

According to Washington Post op-ed columnist William Raspberry the hypocrisy of pretending to be a better person can benefit society. He cites the time he was invited to speak at the University of Mississippi a few years after James Meredith became the first black student to attend the school in 1962, sparking riots on the campus and how surprised he was to note how many parents claimed to support the civil rights movement at the time--something Raspberry, a native Mississippian, finds not possible. But then, he noted, they want to think of themselves as reasonable people and good citizens; to do so, they had to pretend they never had been racists. He believes that these parents became less racist through the hypocrisy of pretending to be less racist

Some parts of our society are built on hypocrisy. E.g. there is a part of us that feel that it is inhumane or uncivilized to strictly advocate the survival of the fittest notion. We feel that it is unethical or immoral to advocate the idea that the lucky people succeed in life and live happily, and the unlucky ones fail and live unhappily. We want to be judged according to our efforts, not by what we are born with. On one side, we are all about competition, and on the other, we are all about being humane. On the one side we talk about fairness, on the other survival of the fittest. This is never more true than in politics