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In praise of hypocrisy

By Andrew Hamilton - posted Monday, 14 May 2007

Public discussion of climate change and drought has a familiar shape. There is a growling exchange between the big picture and the small picture. Those who demand demonstrable effectiveness deride small and local initiatives as romantic, useless and even harmful. Saving shower water will do nothing for the Murray Darling basin. Without international co-operation, curbing Australian carbon emissions will do nothing for the world but will hurt Australian prosperity.

Some critics supplement this criticism by accusing their opponents of hypocrisy. Advocates for radical action to address climate change are found to drive gas guzzlers, spend their life on planes, and live in houses that need their own power plant to run them.

To a Catholic sensibility these exchanges seem familiar and crude. They recall Reformation polemic against the value of sacraments, and Enlightenment polemic against the value of prayer and of faith. Seeing is believing, what cannot be measured is ineffective, what is flawed is without value.


Hostility to symbolic gestures, of course, goes back beyond Christianity. When the Syrian Minister Naaman came to the prophet Elijah to be cured of leprosy, and was instructed to bathe in the Jordan, he complained about the triviality of the gesture. Even if it had any value, there were better rivers back home to bathe in.

Christian reflection on sacraments provides a useful lens for looking at ecological gestures. Sacraments are symbols that bring into effect the things that they symbolise. Water is life-giving; baptism gives life. Bread sustains life, and so does the Eucharist. Sacraments are effective. The key to understanding how they are effective is to realise that they work in another dimension. Baptism and Eucharist give life and sustain life in the spiritual dimension. Anti-sacramental polemic always assumes that sacraments and prayer are effective in the physical dimension of our lives.

When seen in that light symbolic gestures, whether at personal or at national level, are effective, even though they will have a barely measurable effect on water supply or global warming. Their effectiveness is in another dimension. They shape the ability of human communities to respond to the challenges posed by nature.

When we become personally involved in ecological issues by saving water or by reducing our need for power, our attitudes change. Our world becomes different, and our sense of what has priority in it also changes. We find it natural, not quixotic, to live more simply, to question our profligate waste of energy, and so on.

If these practices and awareness become widespread, social attitudes also change. We then put pressure on our governments to address new priorities, even if they will affect our own standard of living. A new view of the world is taken for granted.

We can see this process in the way attitudes to tobacco have changed. Once conventional wisdom, backed by commentators, questioned the effectiveness of quixotic gestures, like insisting that people not smoke at meetings. But such gestures, supported by good argument, led smoking to be seen as a destructive habit, tolerated only as a private idiosyncrasy.


The measures that individual governments take to address climate change and drought can also be effective in the same way. Even if they rely on international co-operation to affect the future directly, they may be highly effective both in helping shape the national outlook and in bringing pressure on other governments to address the issue.

It is common to regard hypocrisy as the ultimate sin. But seen from the perspective of changing public attitudes, hypocrisy is encouraging, not lamentable. It certainly does not discredit the hypocrite’s cause. On any issue like climate change, where we need a radical change of attitude, we would expect to find two kinds of hypocrisy.

Because conversion of mind and heart is a process in which we gradually integrate old habits with a new view of the world, there will always be a time early in our conversion when what we do is inconsistent with what we believe. As our conversion deepens, we change our old ways of acting to bring them into harmony with our new attitudes.

If our conversion catches on, our new attitudes may become entrenched within our community. We should then expect some people to parrot our views and publicly act in accordance with them, while contradicting them in their private actions. This kind of hypocrisy is a warning sign that accepted attitudes in society may no longer supported by personal commitment. But it still represents the triumph of these attitudes.

As a personal trait, hypocrisy is unattractive. In the larger picture hypocrisy is, as Oscar Wilde says, the tribute that vice pays to virtue. It indicates that good attitudes are catching on.

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First published in Eureka Street on May 2, 2007.

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About the Author

Andrew Hamilton SJ teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. He is the consulting editor for Eureka Street.

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