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If We’re Pretty Much All Hypocrites, Why Do We Hate Hypocrites So Much?

The biggest hypocrites are the ones who spend the most time calling out hypocrisy in others

For politicians, hypocrisy is like peeing in the pool: Universally practiced and only a big deal if you get caught. Case in point: In a statement two weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer charged the Republicans — and in particular, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — with practicing the “absolute height of hypocrisy” for wanting to push through a replacement for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy before the midterm elections.

“Our Republican colleagues in the Senate should follow the rule they set in 2016: not to consider a Supreme Court justice in an election year. Senator [Mitch] McConnell would tell anyone who listened that the Senate had the right to advise and consent. And that was every bit as important as the president’s right to nominate. Millions of people are just months away from determining the Senators who should vote to confirm or reject the president’s nominee. And their voices deserve to be heard now, as Leader McConnell thought they should deserved to be heard then. Anything but that would be the absolute height of hypocrisy.”

But here’s the thing, per Glenn Kessler, a reporter at The Washington Post, there’s been “a bushel of flip-flops on approving judicial nominees,” starting in 1992 with then Senator Joe Biden’s statement suggesting that the Judiciary Committee should consider not scheduling Supreme Court confirmation hearings until after the next election.

Basically, everyone’s a hypocrite when you disagree with them.

According to Jeremy Sherman, a public policy decision theorist, we all compromise on hypocrisy. “We’re fast becoming a ‘hypocracy,’ just another state governed by absolute hypocrites, corrupting absolutely,” says Sherman. He refers to the phenomenon of hypocrisy about being a hypocrite as meta-hypocrisy. “Meta-hypocrisy is one of the perks of what I call ‘exempt by contempt.’ You get to say, ‘I hate hypocrisy. I’m quick to point it out in others, so me a hypocrite?! Impossible. I’m exempt.’”

But if everyone is a devout hypocrite, does that mean we’re all going to Dante’s eighth circle of hell? To put it another way: Why do hypocrites aggravate us so much if we’re all just a bunch of hypocrites ourselves? Recent research from Yale University argues that it’s because we don’t like to be tricked. “We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue,” the study’s authors wrote in the New York Times. “People object, in other words, to the misleading implication — not to a failure of will or a weakness of character.”

Which explains why participants in the study were more likely to forgive a “non-signaling hypocrite.” “We found that people judged these non-signaling hypocrites much more positively than they judged traditional hypocrites,” wrote the study’s authors. “In fact, they let these non-signaling hypocrites entirely off the hook, rating them as no worse than those who engaged in the same bad behavior but did not condemn others for it.” The more performative the person is in calling out other people’s hypocrisy, then, the more egregious their own appears.

Sherman agrees. “We hate hypocrites because there’s nothing quite so repulsive to us personally as someone who pulls one over on us, cajoling us to reciprocate their respect for us when they disrespect us completely,” he says. For that reason, Sherman thinks it’s time we changed our attitude about hypocrisy. “When someone accuses me of being a hypocrite, my response should be, ‘Of course, like you, like everyone,’” says Sherman. “It’s not some rare disease, and pretending it is makes you a meta-hypocrite. The real question is whether I’m being a hypocrite in the right ways, not the wrong ways.”

To that end, Sherman says that our current loudly principled approach actually stunts our growth on how to better serve ourselves (or as he puts it, “how to pursue optimal illusion”). This might sound a bit sinister, especially considering how convincing the lies we tell ourselves can become, but it can be boiled down to two simple steps: First, remember that no one respects a person who doesn’t walk the walk, and second, well, watch out for those glass walls if you’re going to start hurling rocks around.