Word of the Day: Hypocrisy

May 03, 2016 02.01PM |

by Tan Chu Chze

“HYPOCRISY” is a heavy word. It is a sharp and pointed bullet, accusing its target of – not just telling – but being a lie. If a person claims to be better or nobler than their actions speak of, we arm our weapons and shoot: hypocrite!

It thus seems surprising that such an aggressive word derives its meaning from more innocent roots: namely, the theatre. In its origin, “hypocrisy” refers to the pretence of acting on stage. A performer puts on the character of a different person and is thus not his “true self”. We can understand “hypocrisy” as a person having inconsistency between his public and private selves.

In that light, it does seem a little strange how accusations of hypocrisy against Dr Chee Soon Juan came about to begin with. Allegedly, Dr Chee is considered a hypocrite on two counts: First, for not displaying any remorse, regret, or repentance to legitimise his “change” in character; second, for the party’s inconsistent treatment of David Ong – the previous MP of the seat Dr Chee is contesting.

However, these accusations of “hypocrisy” are not so clear in and of themselves. What does it take for a man’s change of heart or character to be conceivable? Is some display of guilt and remorse absolutely necessary? Clearly, there are some parts of the story missing regarding what Dr Chee means when he is “proud” of his past, and what PM Lee thinks he should be sorry for.

Likewise, Dr Chee has kept to his word on withholding comments about David Ong, although some members of his party did not. And after PM Lee’s comments on that, Dr Chee said there won’t be anymore of it from anyone. Perhaps there was a lapse in management on Dr Chee’s part, but at least it was quickly rectified?

The point is that “hypocrisy” is not so easy to prove. How truly inconsistent Dr Chee’s character may or may not be can be proven with time, as with other characters before Dr Chee. Any such inconsistencies of character would eventually be self-evident anyway.

But, one thing remains certain: What lies behind any accusation of being “hypocritical” are a pair of eyes that are hypercritical. Thus the function that the word “hypocrisy” really serves is to cast doubt. To mark someone as possibly untrustworthy. This is reflected in an older origin of the word.

Broken into its components, “hypocrisy” combines “hypo” and “crisis”, which come together loosely as “under crisis”. To call someone out on “hypocrisy” is to put his or her character under stress, so that a different persona is sifted out. This is where the power – and danger – of “hypocrisy” surfaces.

To make any accusation as grave as “hypocrisy”, one has to assume a moral high ground. To do otherwise would be sheer hypocrisy.

Then again, one’s ivory tower could just as quickly turn into a witch’s stake. Just look at how Dr Chee deflected allegations of hypocrisy with… allegations of hypocrisy.

And therein lies the paradox. Inherent within the metaphor of acting for “hypocrisy” is that the acting itself cannot be done in isolation. An actor’s false character, or performed self, has to be summoned by another actor. One only becomes the imagined character when called on by another character in the same story. The catch is that both characters are pretence anyway. Therefore the term “hypocrisy” cuts both ways, like a two-edged sword.

This leaves any conversation about hypocrisy with two possible outcomes:

One, both parties engage in an endless cycle of pot calling the kettle black. Both vessels are equally dirty, and probably empty.

The other option: talk about something more constructive.


Here are more articles about the Bukit Batok by-election:


Featured Image by Sean Chong.

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