The term of hypocrisy is tossed around often these days, and likely with good reason. But that begs the question: who exactly is a hypocrite? And how does that apply to us?

The Merriam-Webster definition of hypocrite is in two parts: 1) A person who puts on a  false appearance of virtue or religion and 2) a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings. These days, the more commonly recognized one is the second definition. 

Often, we accuse people of promising one thing and then doing something else, or perhaps claiming one aspect but when pressed, reveals that they actually support the counter-argument. What do we do when we face such issues? How would we be able to differentiate when they lie, and when the truly have honest intentions?

The problem is that at some point in time, we have all been hypocrites. At some point, we have all decided that, perhaps the consequences of such a small white lie would allow for a better result. At some point, we reasoned that it wasn’t the action that determines the morality of the person, but instead, the betterment of the rest of us.

At that instant, at least by Emanuel Kant’s ideas, you have fallen into the trap of being unethical. He makes the fierce argument that our actions are deemed moral and immoral based on the intents of the humans carrying them out, not the consequences. If we proceed into a event, even if it would be designed to help others, with the goal of making yourself look good, then you aren’t actually being ethical. You’re intent has tainted the entire process.

That leads us to another question: Does a single act of immorality determine that entire person’s makeup? In other words, does a single slip-up doom our moral ground forever?

In other words, if we see someone misbehaving under one circumstance, could we assume that they would always behave that way or fashion?

This claim seems quite unreasonable to me, as long as we take a binary view to the issue. From what some people claim, you are either always a hypocrite, or never one. Only the Sith deal with absolutes, and if we claim to do so as well, we would have to admit that we have just as equally screwed up.

One example that I personally am quite guilty of indulging is the deal of conformity. Although I may not be able to speak for everybody, I represent a large majority of everyone when I claim that frequently, we abandon our own thoughts to do what is, or at least seems to be, the right way of doing stuff.

Suppose that there was a big group project, where ideas are being bounced around between team members. Scratch that, lets make those people not only team members, but people that you really want to know you better. In the midst of discussion, you are struck with inspiration for an idea, but the current ringleader is favoring a viewpoint that opposes yours. Would you speak up and risk being shunned by the group, or would you conform your thoughts to match your newly found friends?

That example smacks of the typical “Just be yourself” talk that parents and teachers give frequently, so how about another viewpoint. Lets say that instead of being a newcomer looking for acceptance within a group, let’s make you the leader. You know this group of people pretty well, but at the same time, you are still worried about looking like a fool, because you know that leadership positions can change frequently. You have two ideas in your head: One that is rather revolutionary, but might potentially fail and make you look really stupid for thinking, while the other one is a tried and trusted way that you know will work, but are just as certain won’t produce interesting results.

Which plan do you take?

Both of these decisions are heavily based in our view of what failure is. We are worried by what others would think if they say what we do, so we change. We change to meld into the brains of others, sacrificing originality for comfort and safety. We fear that what we do will not be accepted, and if it is not an accepted view, then it cannot be a correct view.

This take on failure is wrong.

It is wrong for companies, as demonstrated time and time again by Google. Google, the megacompany of information at your fingertips, the master of all searches, repeatedly fails. And they relish each instance of it.

It is wrong for scientists, as demonstrated by Edison (Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration; bless that idiot of a marketer) and by the entire field of scientific journals. It shouldn’t matter what each individual puts into the public domain, what matters is that as a group, we are moving forward. That we are realizing our mistakes and moving past them.

It is wrong for individuals. People need to be able to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy! Only after making those failures, can we understand a real lesson. Without chances, we go into a world where we just keep along patterns and don’t progress.

Another personal example, this time from calculus. A friend and I were faced with the same problem in integration by parts, and like a “good student”, I diligently worked at it with the formulaic focus that could be expected from such a student. My friend had been gone for the past few days, so she wasn’t as familiar with the rote process as I was, but halfway through me finishing, she comes up to me and says, doesn’t this trig identity just solve the problem immediately?

I was blown away. I had gotten so engrossed into doing what I knew was right that I didn’t consider other methods of attack, other possibly easier forms of simplification. It was the most basic trig identity, something that anyone could catch, and yet nobody did. My narrow focus messed me up.

Well actually it turned out that she made a sign error, so the identity was not valid at all. Didn’t work in the specific case, but the point was, none of us were even LOOKING for such a way to do stuff. That kind of thinking is what keeps us going forward, to look for things that are beyond what are taught and to adapt even when it’s been proven wrong. (oh yeah, congrats to her for placing at ISEF! :D)

Perhaps sometimes conformity is a good thing, as to a certain degree, conformity keeps us from all going crazy. At the same time, we have to be wary not to allow the view of doing what others believe is correct get in our way of what we believe is correct. We can’t let our lives be governed by what others tell us.

And so, in that long winded argument where I lost 75% of my readers halfway through, I want you to understand that we are all hypocrites. We all do stuff that we are not proud of, and would change if we had a second chance. But instead of letting that idea cloud our vision of how to treat others, we need to use that to find forgiveness in ourselves for others. We understand that nobody is perfect, everybody lies, but everyone also has redemption and anyone can make a change.

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