Hypocrisy's Two Faces

Ronald Rolheiser
September 11, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

The subtlety of hypocrisy! How easy it is not to see our own inconsistencies, even as we so clearly see the faults of others. Are we willfully blind, or is it that we just don't see? Is this a moral problem or a visual one? Consider these examples:

In his travels, the eighteenth-century explorer, Captain James Cook, once spent several years in the Polynesian Islands. He learned the native language and was befriended by the people. One day, they took him to witness a human sacrifice. The tribe still practiced a certain animism and would sometimes offer a person as a sacrifice to their gods. Cook, a sophisticated English gentleman, was understandably appalled. He wrote in his diary that he expressed his indignation to the chief, telling him: This is awful! You're a primitive people. In England we would hang you for that!

The irony in Cook's reaction shouldn't be missed - and it isn't missed by anthropologists. When we kill someone in God's name, it doesn't matter whether we call it human sacrifice or capital punishment. Either way, we are sacrificing a human life and justifying it in God's name.

A second example comes to us from the writings of Bill Plotkin who once spent time studying various initiation rites which pre-modern tribes use to initiate young boys and young girls at the age of puberty. As we know, puberty can be a dangerous time for a young person. Puberty hits a young person with a certain violence which heats up both the body and the psyche. However, it must be kept in mind that this powerful unsettling force had been designed by God and nature with a definite purpose, namely, to drive you out of your home, to push you towards finding a home for yourself, and to end your childhood so as to enter adulthood. Understandably, powerful energies are needed to accomplish that.

But these energies can be hard to contain and hard to initiate in the direction of adulthood. Indeed, almost all pre-modern cultures had initiation rites to help direct that process. Today most cultures (not least our own) have precious little in terms of explicit initiation rites. What Plotkin found in his study of pre-modern initiation rites is that all of them were very demanding, physically, and emotionally, on the youths undergoing them that sometimes a youth undergoing them died during the process.

Looking at this, Plotkin comments that our modern sensitivities are offended by this seemingly primitive cruelty. We easily become morally indignant and see these practices as backward and cruel. However, he goes on to point out, these tribes actually lose very few young people in the passage from puberty to adulthood - while we, sophisticated modern cultures, lose thousands of young people every year who are trying to self-initiate through drugs, alcohol, sex, cars, gangs, and at-risk behavior.

Aye, as Jesus once said, it's easy to see the splinter in someone else's eye even as we are unaware of the beam in our own eye.

Now I say all this more in sympathy than in judgment because hypocrisy isn't all of a kind. There is a hypocrisy where the blindness is more willful, and there is a hypocrisy where the blindness is more innocent. Thomas Aquinas once distinguished between two kinds of ignorance. For Aquinas, there is culpable ignorance and there is invincible ignorance, that is, sometimes we don't see because we don't want to see, and sometimes we don't see simply because we can't see.

In culpable ignorance we do know better. We refuse to look at something because we don't want to see the truth. Our inability to see is predicated on rationalization and fear, a willful refusal to look lest we see what we don't want to see, some inconvenient truth. In culpable ignorance, we don't see the parallel between human sacrifice and capital punishment because we already intuitively sense the connection and we don't want to see it, and so refuse to look.

In invincible ignorance we don't know any better. Our shortcomings have to do with the limits of our humanity, our background, and our experience. We aren't afraid to look at reality. We look, but we simply don't see. Like Captain Cook, in all sincerity, we simply don't see the parallel between human sacrifice and capital punishment, and, unlike Bill Plotkin, we can easily judge pre-modern initiation rites as cruel and appalling, even as thousands of our own young people die cruel senseless deaths in trying to find the passage of life from puberty to adulthood.

All of us, liberal or conservative, have blind spots in terms of how we see and assess various social justice issues, be that climate change, poverty, abortion, immigration, refugees, racism, women's equality, or gender issues. Standing before these complex issues, are we willing to look them square in the face, or are we unwilling to really look at them because we already intuit what we might see? Is our blindness, our hypocrisy, culpable or invincible?