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Sunday 10 February 2019

The sweet taste of humbug

What? Time was when Britain was home to world-class hypocrites. Social media has made us ordinary.

Why? Society runs better if the wheels are greased with humbug.

By Catherine Nixey

Hypocrisy used to be so much fun. Who can think of Jonathan Aitken wielding his famous sword of truth – before being clapped into prison for perjury – without a shiver of pleasure? And while pleasure is certainly not the word for considering John Major’s affair with Edwina Currie, the fact that it happened during his Back to Basics campaign offers, even still, an undeniable thrill.

But it is the sad truth that, along with uninterrupted sleep and an ability to withstand boredom, hypocrisy is one more casualty of the digital age. Politicians might put on a mask but, with the aid of Twitter it can be whipped off with alarming rapidity. Embarrassing tweets are resurrected, recirculated and even (as happened last month) turned into billboards. An Instagram feed can expose the pious preacher’s affair; your computer’s cookies can know the secrets of your own heart better than you do.

Social media is rapidly making the art of hypocrisy all but impossible. But make no mistake, hypocrisy is an art. People often confuse it with mere lying, but that is grossly to undervalue it. Lying no more makes you a hypocrite than quoting a line from Shakespeare makes you Hamlet: it is necessary, but not sufficient. Hypocrisy is a far higher form of humbug.


The word hypocrite comes from the Greek “hypocrites”, a slithery sort of noun which means something between “actor” and “phony”. It was a short leap from the theatrical stage to the political one and already in the fifth century the orator Demosthenes was sneering at a politician and former actor (Reagan too belonged to a long tradition) that he remained a “hypocrites”.

The term had arrived and proved so useful it has never gone away. It has been Latinised (“hypocrita”), Anglicised (“hypocrite”) and even lionised. Machiavelli prescribed the use of it for everyone from politicians to princes. How else, he asked, can you get anything done when your interests are not aligned, but by pretending, just for a bit, that they are?

Ruth Grant is a professor of political science at Duke University, North Carolina, and has written extensively about the topic. And while she wouldn’t endorse everything Machiavelli wrote (he also, for example, advised that “if an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared”), she thinks he may have a point here. She calls it “the paradox of democracy”.

“You can be straightforward with your enemies and you can be straightforward with your friends,” she says. “But when you need somebody and your interests aren’t quite exactly aligned – that’s when you need to be hypocritical. [And because] in democracies, politicians are especially dependent on coalition partners or supporters, they need to do that a lot.”

And that’s the paradox: while democracies like to denounce a hypocrite, for democracy to work, hypocrisy is essential. To pat the dog with one hand, while reaching for the rock with the other may not be admirable – but it is eminently practical and always has been, as the political vocabulary shows. A whiff of being not quite fully frank hangs around the very words “politic” and “political”.

Or rather, hypocrisy used to be essential. Now, Grant thinks, as politics has become polarised “we are treating each other more like enemies rather than like potential partners. So in a way we have got less hypocritical”. Yet despite what Twitter might think, this is not necessarily a good thing.

For one thing, at least if you are pretending to be a bit better than you are, then you are, for that moment, a bit better. Whereas now the pretence is fading. There is no acting, no strutting or fretting on the stage. “Now we are in a situation where there’s just plain lies,” says Grant. This is happening “a whole lot more”. Then the lies “get exposed – and people don’t seem to care”.

That’s not the only problem. Because while hypocrisy might be on a continuum with the fib, it is also on a continuum with that other form of dissembling: good manners and civility. Lose hypocrisy and you may gain in honesty – but also in abrasiveness. Grant cites the moment when Barack Obama stood up to give the State of the Union address and a congressman yelled: “You lie!” “That never would have happened when I was growing up. People might have thought about it but they wouldn’t have said it out loud.”

So it seems we must make a choice. Brutal honesty, or a dash of honeyed humbug. Would it make us all unbearably hypocritical if, after all, we decided that we liked the humbug?

Illustrations by Nathalie Lees