Hypocrisy! they cry
With eyes alight and fingers fast
Pointed at the man in green.
He stands athwart
Cries ‘Damn your comforts
They’re harmful to the bees’!
But he is no saint
His deeds fall faint
Once he leaves the scene.
At home at test
He’s like the rest
With honey in his tea!
A Free the Commons! first. A poem, about a powerful and ugly and unfair word – hypocrisy. 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…
I think about this word from time to time. I’ve leveled it before, and been on the receiving end of it. I’ve joked with it and been serious with its use. But the more I consider it, and study and understand it, the more unseemly the word has become to me. I do not use this word anymore.
Words carry weight – there is meaning and power in their symbolism. We use hypocrisy as an ad hominem, to tear down a speaker and avoid confronting the argument at hand. And why not? Who amongst us can live up to our beliefs? After all, don’t we at Free the Commons! drive our cars, heat our homes, plug in our laptops? Do we practice what we preach even as we write about coal and mercury and other environmental ills?
But to believe one way and behave another isn’t hypocrisy; it’s human. Living in an imperfect world neither keeps us from living nor prevents us from dreaming. If the “is” of life is not yet the “ought” we argue for, we have committed no sin. If I may paraphrase for a moment – I can’t access my source – a philosopher named Mark Sagoff once found that his students, though opposed to the potential development of a ski area in nearby wilderness, would choose to ski there if the ski area were indeed built. As I recall, Sagoff concluded that there was no contradiction here: essentially, the students were behaving in the roles assigned to them. At first, they were citizen environmentalists, saying no to a ski slope development. They then became consumers and, with no role left to play in the development question, they behaved as consumers often do.
And this is the situation we find ourselves in every day. We live our lives within the confines of our worlds. Our power comes from coal and natural gas. We fuel our cars with oil. We live in homes built of wood or brick. But these facts of life do not preclude us from believing in, supporting, and fighting for solar power, new car technologies, protections for our forests and air quality. We do what we can with our limited means to make our daily choices better choices; for most of us that is the best we can do. For this we are not hypocrites, and we won’t allow others to label us as such just so they can ignore our arguments.