Constructive Hypocrisy and Trust

A stimulating conversation over on LinkedIn, sparked by Adam Turteltaub of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, leads me to explore the relationship of hypocrisy to trust, authenticity and truth-telling.

How can there by such a thing as “constructive hypocrisy,” you ask? Well, it’s a good term to describe how we handle the uncomfortable no-man’s land between the letter of the law and the nuanced nature of the world.

Example: The 55 mph speed limit. Enforcement kicks in at about 65. We say “about” because it has to stay loose, else it becomes the new 55. How can you justify people driving 57 when the limit is 55? You can’t. But we do all the time. Constructive hypocrisy.

Bill Bennett wrote about constructive hypocrisy as key to social functioning back in the 90s.  The brilliant (and outrageously controversial) Herman Kahn used the term to describe the social value of plausible deniability (“A rural American man doesn’t want his daughter to be able to buy pornography at the corner store; and if she does, he wants to be able to say he didn’t know about it.”)

But we don’t need no stinkin’ highfalutin definitions. Here are two that’ll do fine. Have you ever said:

“I’ll call you right back in 1 minute.” Which means between 3 and 5 minutes.

“Let’s do lunch,” which of course means ‘let’s don’t do lunch.’

If you’ve said those things, then you’re a constructive hypocrite.  Sometimes, anyway. Congratulations.

The Role of Hypocrisy

Constructive hypocrisy gives us breathing room from the constant cacophonous confrontation between the puritanical rule-givers among us, and the anarchistic forces just waiting to destroy civilization. 

·    What does the flight attendant do when the announcement says ‘turn off your cell phones now’ and the passenger covers up the screen to finish the email? Constructive hypocrisy (for a while).

·    What does the cop say when it’s a first violation and the person is clearly not a trouble maker, and the violation was narrow? I’ll let you off this time with a warning….Constructive hypocrisy.

·    What are sentencing guidelines for judges, except constructive hypocrisy?

Here are some situations where the world could use more, not less, constructive hypocrisy:

·    Gay marriage

·    Three strikes you’re out sentencing rules

·    Abortion (oh boy, I can see the emails now)

·    the Middle East

On the other hand, there are limits to constructive hypocrisy—at some point it becomes denial. Think of US immigration policy, for example, or municipal pension funding. Over a decade ago, don’t ask/don’t tell was constructive hypocrisy; as time passed, it became uncomfortable denial. The policy didn’t change; society did.

 Hypocrisy, Authenticity and Trust

On the face of it, you’d think trust can’t co-exist with hypocrisy. But on closer examination, I think they are complementary, maybe even interdependent.

Constructive hypocrisy is a socially acceptable way of agreeing to disagree. We both choose to look the other way, rather than insist on a constant confrontation of values. Done in the right proportion, it is the triumph of relationship over principle.  

Can I trust someone who’s being hypocritical? In many cases, yes, precisely because their willingness to be hypocritical rather than provoke a confrontation over principle means they actually value my relationship over one of their opinions. 

What about authenticity? Only in a narrow sense are they in conflict. For me to indulge in constructive hypocrisy doesn’t mean I’m being inauthentic about my beliefs; it means I’m being authentic about the balance of my principles and the need to get along with others in the world. 

Alfred Hitchcock knew that imagination trumped vision (the shower scene in Psycho); other directors know that a bit of clothing is more erotic than pure nudity.  In the same sense, a bit of hypocrisy lubricates social interactions better than does undiluted truth.  

If you’d like to talk more about this concept, maybe we could do lunch?