We are probably all guilty of this. We constantly project beliefs, opinions, values, feelings, qualities and standards that are at variance with what we practice. Admittedly, what we practice is not necessarily what we will want to practice, making hypocrisy more than inconsistency between what is advocated and what is done. The English author and moralist Samuel Johnson in fact tells us that 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.”
It is often said that man is completely sincere only when he is alone, away from the prying eyes of anyone. As the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, adumbrated: “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.”
If there is a bit of the hypocrite in all of us, then our hypocrisy is often at its highest when discussing public officials, especially politicians, in the context of money and sex. Consider this story:
The New York Times of December 26, 2009, carried a story of Narain Dutt Tiwari, an 86-year Governor of a southern Indian state who was forced to resign after a television news channel broadcast a tape showing him having a tryst with three women. Though Tiwari’s office had denounced the tape as a fabrication, opposition and women’s rights groups held protests in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh’s capital, demanding for his resignation. Tiwari later resigned, citing health reasons.
Admittedly the alleged sex escapade, which apparently took place in the privacy of Tiwari’s bedroom, will be morally revolting to some, but does that amount to a crime? Apart from the comedy of imagining an old man of 86 being naughty, does the alleged dalliance in any way affect his ability to perform his official duties? Was the Governor’s right to privacy breached? Will the protesters be willing to honestly share with the public their activities when they are completely alone or in the privacy of their homes?
While our hypocrisy as ordinary citizens can often go undetected and unpunished, sometimes public officials who take a high moral ground to enhance their image and career are not always so lucky. Consider these cases:
On 10 March 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer admitted that he was a customer of a prostitution ring which charged as much as $3,100 to $5,500 an hour. What irked most people was not so much the act of patronising prostitutes as the hypocrisy of it all because Spitzer was known for his moral high grounds. For instance as Attorney General of the state in 2003, he had brought a suit against a company suspected of planning sex tourism trips to Asia. He was then quoted as saying that the “company purports to be a traditional travel agency, but through its actions promotes prostitution and the abuse of young women.” He resigned on March 12, 2008.
Wayne Hayes , an Ohio Democrat, was regarded as one of the biggest bullies in the US Congress in the 1970s, intimidating lawmakers and staff alike as chairman of the House Administration Committee. He had a carefully cultivated image of a moralist and a puritan. Then Elizabeth Ray, a woman he hired to be a secretary and receptionist, confessed to The Washington Post that her real ‘job’ was to provide sexual favours to the congressman. “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone,” she said. The scandal forced Mr. Hayes out of Congress. Similarly, it was found that Newt Gingrich, who, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, led the effort to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about sexual dalliances with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, was himself having an affair with a House aide.
In the UK, John Major, the British Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party (1990-1997) had in 1993 launched a Back- to- Basics campaign in an attempt to re-launch his government. The effort backfired when the media began scrutinizing the campaign’s moral aspects and consequently exposed “sleaze” within the Conservative Party and, most damagingly, within the Cabinet itself. A number of ministers were then revealed to have committed sexual indiscretions, and Major was forced by media pressure to dismiss them. It later emerged that prior to his promotion to the cabinet, John Major himself had a long-standing extramarital affair with a fellow MP, Edwina Currie.
In countries like France and Nigeria, where infidelity by politicians and others is usually regarded as a ‘non-issue’, it is easier to grandstand on corruption or incompetence of public officials. Take Olusegun Obasanjo for instance. For years he had a carefully cultivated image of an ‘incorruptible’ man, and during his regime as civilian President (1999-2007), he had accused sundry politicians of corruption and even used the EFCC to hunt them. Today not few people question the source of his suspected stupendous wealth, especially as it was revealed that he was almost a bankrupt when he was drafted to run for President in 1999.
What are the lessons from the above?
One, most of us should consider ourselves lucky that as private individuals, the media really have no interest in beaming their searchlights on us. Were they to do so, it will be easy to find a dissonance between the values we profess (sometimes very honestly) and the way we live our lives. This should help us to temper our criticisms of public officials, by consciously balancing an official’s good deeds with his/her shortcomings. As Edward Wallis Hoch, the seventeenth Governor of Kansas, USA, would counsel us:
“There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.”
Two, while as citizens and writers we have an obligation to hold public officials to account, there is a related question of how we should do this responsibly without appearing like the biblical hypocrite, who revels in pointing out the speck in another’s eyes while neglecting the log in his own eyes. No sensible person judges the weather only by its inclement or sunny side. Today, there are ‘social critics’ who believe that once you have been in public office, then you must have ‘stolen us blind’, and must consequently be ostracised because nothing good will ever come from you. I know for instance of one ‘social critic’, who ‘vamoosed’ with money given to him by a friend, whom he convinced to sell his plot of land in Lagos to raise money for a certain “assured business deal”. Some two years after the money was handed over to the ‘social critic’, the “assured business deal” has still not materialised and the money still not returned. Yet, in his articles, he has no qualms taking absolute moral positions, permitting no room for mistakes or human imperfections, as he lampoons, in the most flowery phrases, those who have ‘stolen us dry’.