Friday, February 26, 2010

Hypocrisy: A Careful Understanding

Hypocrisy is a dirty idea. It's a tainted act. Again, some definitions (1):

1. A pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess.

2. A pretense of having some desirable or publicly approved attitude.

3. An act or instance of hypocrisy.
Adults can be hypocrites. We assume (hope) that time they've spent maturing allows them to understand the difference between integrity (meaning and acting on what you say) and hypocrisy (see above).
The word originates from Greek theatre. Actors would wear large, distorted masks meant to convey some emotion related to the character. This idea, originally hypokrisis in Greek, meant play-acting.
As teachers in middle schools, we see play acting by our students all the time. Developmentally, they are seeking peer approval and as such will act in whatever ways necessary to gain that approval. At times, they can be hypocrites. At other times, they can complain to their friends and parents that, "such and such is not being real." or "He is so fake." or "She is just not genuine." The struggle for our students is looking inward and figuring out how important peer approval is compared to their own beliefs.
Our job is to help inform that debate, that struggle. In my role, I try to do it through the Honor Code. Adults can become frustrated when we see the students speak to the honor code and the components within it, and then turn around and do something that is totally against it. We can, at times, label our students hypocrites. But are they?
First, this is what middle schoolers do - they are impulsive and live in the present. This characteristic manifests itself in some of the stupid things they do. Second, they are discovering justice and fairness (what is just is not always fair) and are adamant that everything be fair. This characteristic manifests itself in the discussions of the use of the Honor Code. So our students are not necessarily hypocrites when they fly from one characteristic to the other - they're middle schoolers. This doesn't mean we don't call them on it - hold them accountable and help them realize all actions have consequences, but it does mean that we need to understand the context within which these students are living and making choices.
As Samuel Johnson said,
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself. (2)
Rambler 14, P. 154. In Chalmers, Alexander: Full text of "The British essayists : with prefaces, historical and biographical".

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