It’s OK to be a Hypocrite

Dr. John Cairney

A few weeks backs, I was listening to a program on CBC radio. A political scientist, Adam Kingsmith, was discussing the acceptability, even necessity, of being a hypocrite when it comes to taking a stand on crucial social issues. His area of concern was the environment, and the internal contradiction he felt when he and his colleagues were criticized for essentially talking the talk, but not walking the walk. For example, if you say you are concerned about global warming and you feel the need to protest against big oil companies, then you should never drive or ride in a car, plane or train ever again, get rid of all oil-based products in your home and work place and … you see the point.

Surely we have heard this many times before – unless you are prepared to give up everything, you do not have the right to voice your concern. This position, while in its extreme may seem ridiculous, does seem to resonate with people at least a little bit. The issue is, we do not like to be called hypocrites. Socially, that is a terrible thing because it strikes right to the heart of the matter when it comes to social relationships. We want to be respected, trusted and admired by those around us; it is a fundamental human need. If you are a hypocrite, you don’t receive any of those positive attributions we try so hard to get from loved ones and others. To be a hypocrite is to run the risk of being socially scarred or excluded. You can see why the threat of being a called a hypocrite can be used against people who dissent - it is a powerful means to silence.

Just last week, ParticipACTION released the annual Report card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth in Canada and while the grade did go up, we are still not doing very well as a country (D- overall). I started to wonder how much of what we see in other social movements – the fear of being outed as a hypocrite - might be influencing what we are and are not doing with our children with regard to getting them more physically active. As a parent, if I don’t believe I am as active as I could be, or spending too much time in front of screens (like writing a blog), can I really call my kids out for doing the same?

Rather than retreat from making positive change because of fear of hypocrisy, it is more useful to see hypocrisy in the modern world as evitable and potentially illuminating. In the context of children’s activity, our own hypocrisy can challenge us to think critically about the choices we make. Yes, we drive cars. Yes, we use computers and watch media on smart devices. Sometimes we don’t have a choice – maybe you need to use a computer for your job or you live in a community where public transportation is not adequate. Choice is complex. You can still be concerned about sedentary behaviour and inactivity for yourself and your children. You can still speak out and act out to make positive change.

The very fact that our young environmental activist cannot reject a lifestyle dependent on oil actually tells us something about just how pervasive the problem of dependency in fossil fuels is in our society. It casts a light on exactly those forces that conspire to keep us dependent. In other words, we cannot help but be hypocritical – there I said it, it’s out, now lets move on. When threats of being hypocritical are used to silence dissenting viewpoints, we need to openly challenge those that use this as a device to muzzle. Yes, I am hypocritical and, unfortunately, I don’t have a choice. Being so does not necessary invalidate the opinion that is being expressed – that is the critical point.

Let’s talk to our children about how difficult it is to resist the technology that often keeps us still. Start conversations about small changes the whole family can make to offset what some scientists have called the obesogenic society (the modern world is built to minimize energy expenditure). Openly discuss the contradictions that make us feel hypocritical. Embrace the hypocrisy as being necessary for a time, but don’t let it prevent you from making positive changes for yourself and your family.

It’s far better to be hypocritical on your way to making positive change, then to do nothing so you can claim to be authentic. To paraphrase an old Billy Joel song, “ the hypocrites are much more fun” (and in the case of physical activity, will live longer healthier lives!).