Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Makes a Hypocrite?

Mel Gibson is catching a lot of flack for stepping out with another woman just two weeks after his wife of twenty-eight years filed for divorce. But the most interesting thing about this is not the level of tackiness (Come on, Mel, really?), it's the astounding number of bored people who comment on these happenings, calling Gibson (who is a devout Catholic) a hypocrite and reveling in the chance to bash religion in general, saying that this just goes to show that religious people are all hypocrites who should stop telling the rest of us what to do.

Now, while I agree this is not wise behavior on Gibson's part (and certainly won't win back any fans who were turned off by his disgusting anti-Semitic rant a few years ago), I have to question whether his actions are truly hypocritical. As the point of the indignant comments I read seems to be "He's a hypocrite and he's religious, so therefore all religion is hypocritical and bad", I have to wonder if these people think anyone is allowed to have any beliefs that they cannot fully live up to.

The fact is that none of us is perfect, which means that there is not a soul on the planet (under this ban on "hypocrisy") who has the right to tell us what to do. Frankly, this just seems like a more sneaky way of saying that the general populace would like to be able to behave however they please, without religious or moral police interfering with their fun.

I am reminded of the whole William Bennett kerfuffle a few years ago. Bennett was a conservative, shall we say, "moralist" who is best known for his writings and commentary on virtuous living, including "The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories". But then it came to light that this proponent of morality was a high-stakes gambler. And not only that, he was a smoker! While he was drug czar of the United States, no less! (Apparently smoking is the only vice that still seems to land one in the sin category nowadays).

Suddenly the cry went out: "Hypocrite!" How could Bennett be offering guidance on how to live one's life if he was not squeaky clean himself? The gall! How could he fight a war on drugs and sit in his office smoking the day away?

Well, let's define hypocrite, for the sake of discussion. One Webster's Dictionary definition is: "A person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs", which I think is the definition most people go for when discussing the concept. But in my perusal of definitions on the web, there is much more to hypocrisy. According to my google search, a hypocrite can also be defined as: "A person who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives" or "The act of preaching a certain belief, religion, or way of life, but not, in fact holding these beliefs."

I prefer these definitions because they allow religious persons, who truly believe a certain way, to mess up (or in other words, be human) without being called a hypocrite. Who is to say that Mel Gibson does not believe that what he is doing is wrong? Or that William Bennett did not feel guilty as he bet his millions in the casino? Just because they were doing these things does not mean we get a free pass to ignore the good and correct things they said, simply because they are fallible human beings. That's where we run into trouble, when we group all morality into one perfect bundle and only allow the sinless to dispense of it. We can still learn lessons from others, even with, and in some cases because of, their shortcomings.

Now, I am not excusing any of Gibson's behavior (past or present), and I am not saying that Bennett probably shouldn't have been off gambling. But their personal behavior is not a black mark against religion or morality in general. We all make mistakes. Let's learn from theirs so we don't have to make the same mistakes on our own.


Julia said...

Not to mention that the initial line of reasoning is completely faulty. It's just as logical as saying "Strawberries are yummy, therefore all red berries are yummy." Why does the world insist on breeding idiots?

Sara said...

Clearly the people making this reasoning, "He's a hypocrite and he's religious, so therefore all religion is hypocritical and bad", never had to sit through my tediously painful college logic class.

And I agree - let all the other people make the mistakes, so I don't have to. :)