Giles Fraser

Canon Dr Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Rector at the south London church of St Mary’s, Newington

June 13, 2019

The Pharisees have been badly treated by history. After they were traduced as hypocrites in the New Testament, the word Pharisaic entered the dictionary as a by-word for double-dealing and general shiftiness – and thus as a stick with which Christians came to abuse Jews.

But this is unfair. What the Pharisees were trying to do was entirely laudable – they sought to extend the rules that religious conservatives believed only applied to priests in the Temple, and make them applicable to all Jews. In modern terms, the Pharisees wanted to democratise religion, to take it out of the Temple into the market place.

Christians have not only been unjustifiably harsh on the Pharisees – not least under the influence of St Paul who was himself an ex-Pharisee – they have also, precisely because of this, lost sight of a basic Christian message.

To put it crudely, Christian morality is unattainable: its basic teachings are set up as to be virtually impossible for anyone to follow. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus argues that adultery is not just having sex with someone who is not your wife, but even to look at a woman lustfully counts as adultery. This is a council of perfection that, pretty much, no man can meet. And so hypocrisy is endemic to the whole Christian project. To put it another way, Christianity deliberately engineers a crisis of moral failure among its adherents, thus to oblige them to seek repentance and an awareness that they depend upon God for their salvation, not on their own pathetic efforts.

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This is part of the back-story to the complicated moral valence of the word hypocrisy. These days, however, the charge of hypocrisy has risen high up the league-table of moral crimes with which to charge someone. And yes, I am thinking about Michael Gove and his cocaine admission.

I have a theory about why hypocrisy has become moral crime number one: because in an age of moral relativism, where it is widely believed that our values are self-generated, inconsistency is just about the only thing we can get someone on. If morality is our own business, our own invention, then not living up to our own rules is the only thing that counts as moral failure. And, so, moral disputation becomes a game of “gotcha!”.

I have a totally different take on hypocrisy. Better to have high standards that you fail to meet, than low standards that are designed around your own moral (in)capacity. For me, hypocrisy is an inevitable by-product of upholding high – even objective – moral standards. If you are not a hypocrite, you are just not trying hard enough.

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Take the case of Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, a mischief-making journalist who made his name with a succession of stories exposing the failures of politicians. He came onto the Moral Maze programme this week, having accused Gove of double standards – the politician was taking cocaine at the same time as condemning the practice in his Times column.

I do not condemn Staines for his “gotcha” approach to journalism. That is his job, and he serves an important function. Nonetheless, his own position struck me as a different form of failure.

He proudly admitted his regular and continued cocaine use, and refused to see anything wrong with that. He was colourful and entertaining and refreshingly open. Indeed, so open that he was even prepared to admit that as a father of teenage girls, his position to them on drug use was: do as I say not as I do. So an honest hypocrite then.

But nonetheless, I was left with the impression that his position was designed with maximum consistency in mind. He had formulated his moral position so that it could easily fit around his personal proclivity for recreational pharmaceuticals. And that is surely the wrong way around. In the world of “gotcha” morality, Staines is well protected against the very strategy that he employs to devastating effect against others. But at what cost?

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The guest that followed him on the Maze told a very different story about our moral formation. The psychoanalyst Dr Aaron Balick says we are all hypocrites; hypocrisy is constitutive of the human condition. And this was an unsurprising observation for a psychoanalyst to make, because in his working life he is constantly dealing with the gap that exists between people’s self-presentation and the deeper reality of their lives.

An important part of the psychoanalytic enterprise is to bring these different parts of our lives into a more fruitful conversation with each other. The Staines position seems to me a denial of the deep contradictions that form us as human beings. This makes him bullet-proof on the chat-show, but, I suspect, tragically exposed on the couch, if he were ever to find himself there.

Now, I apologise to Staines for using him as my example here. I do not know him. And he was entertaining company. But he is an interesting example because of his professional career as a hypocrisy hunter.

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His work speaks to much of our current political predicament. On the one hand, we want out politicians to be like us, to share our complexity and to have experienced some of the same moral challenges and failures of our own lives. Thus we scorn Theresa May for the inanity of her confession that the worst thing she has ever done is run through a wheat field. If that really is the worst thing she has ever done, then she really is the Maybot – something, as the word implies, less than fully and messily human. Yet, at the same, time, we condemn our politicians when they are exposed for doing something a little more morally problematic (and interesting) than wheat-field trespass. We ask the impossible of them. And we set them up to fail.

Balick argues that we take pleasure and relief in exposing the hypocrisy of others because it is a convenient way of pointing away from our own failures. “Gotcha” morality is a strategy of misdirection. “Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?” was Hamlet’s response to the pompous and self-righteous Polonius, a line that Freud himself quotes with approval in one of his letters. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

Personally, I am more comfortable with politicians who are hypocrites. Being one myself, I understand the type. The Pharisees were basically right: better to aim high and fail, than to be complacently content with the small and closed world of our own moral limitations.