“Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue”, the saying goes. However, in the time of a pandemic, hypocrisy can be lethal. If a leader says, “stay at home, protect lives”, the message is undermined when members of the government break the rules.
It’s rare that hypocrisy has such drastic consequences. However, this is precisely what we are facing into now. Dominic Cummings apparently had a hand in crafting the simple, effective message of lockdown: “Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” But when it came obeying it personally, he couldn’t bear being locked down. Rather, he drove over 250 miles to his family’s estate in Durham. He apparently was also caught going to the beauty spot of Barnard’s Castle with his wife for her birthday. If we add his actions to his words, his slogan, “Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” apparently should be followed by a “just kidding”.
When confronted with the consequences of their misdeeds, a normal person would admit to shame and apologise. Contrition is not on Mr. Cummings’ emotional palette. He believes he is not bound by his own prescriptions; what’s worse is that his boss, Boris Johnson, doesn’t seem to think so either. They are the elite, they would likely have us believe, and rules, laws and strictures, even those developed by the keenest scientific minds, do not apply. Mr. Cummings went to his parents’ estate in Durham; he broke the rules, but he has an estate, he has power, and that, in his mind, gives him the right.
A certain level of hypocrisy is a normal, even beneficial, part of life. We tell our children not to do things that we may have done when they were their age; bitter experience informs our opinion and makes us want better for them. Church leaders preach peace and love, but underneath they are as susceptible to vanity, wrath, and sin as the rest of us. A level of hypocrisy provides us with the impetus to do better; the difficulty is that we must remain ignorant of much of the hypocrisy in train.
Is that possible in an era as connected as ours? A celebrity goes to a restaurant and can’t escape requests for selfies. We are all mortal, but the internet and the communications we share across it, live forever. Every last chapter and verse of our foibles is out there: the message we wrote in all caps, the intemperate words we used. Not everything is worth repetition or emulation. Sometimes, it’s best that things are forgotten.
Perhaps our connected era demands higher standards. If you go into politics, you should be conscious of this: there is no room for issuing life and death instructions and then throwing them away casually when they become inconvenient. It’s not enough to say, “reduce your carbon footprint” and then make only token gestures towards doing so. Like private hypocrisy, public hypocrisy can be a force for good, only if its sufficiently exposed and as a result, we demand that our leaders do as they say, and what they prescribe is what they do.