Three proud hypocrisies

In Vanity Fair, Thackeray continues to refer to the most morally upstanding member of his bizarre collection of characters as a hypocrite:

Conducted to the ladies, at the Ship Inn, Dobbin assumed a jovial and rattling manner, which proved that this young officer was becoming a more consummate hypocrite every day of his life. He was trying to hide his own private feelings, first upon seeing Mrs. George Osborne in her new condition, and secondly to mask the apprehensions he entertained as to the effect which the dismal news brought down by him would certainly have upon her.

When Dobbin tries to convince Amelia Osborne’s brother Jos of the necessity for preparing for flight, should the worst happen and both Dobbin and George perish in a defence of the city against the French, he’s silent once again about his love for Amelia, and Jos—misunderstanding his concern—treats him with the contempt to be reserved for a coward. Poor Dobbin, it seems, is to be forever considered deficient in the topsy-turvy world of the Fair, because he disguises his own feelings while making plain his intentions: the precise opposite behaviour from that of the book’s main character Becky Sharp. His hypocrisy saves him, both as a human being and from the fates that befall others in the book.

Some time ago, musician and commentator Momus discussed accusations of hypocrisy following his own publication of articles on his espousing of a relatively leftfield and post-consumerist lifestyle:

… The hypocrisy mindset pays too much attention to people’s personal lives and too little to their programmatic or ideological outlook. If someone is a visionary, or is trying to solve a widespread problem, it’s likely that his personal life will reflect the problem whereas his policies will reflect the solution. It would then be pretty stupid to accuse him of saying one thing and doing another — especially if everyone were pretty much in the same boat, at least until an alternative infrastructure is set up. A charge of hypocrisy might well be a pre-emptive strike designed to stymie future solutions to universal problems.

To be accused of hypocrisy, then, is in part to receive acknowledgement from your accuser that, at least on a logical or rational level, they’re starting to lose command of the argument, and are bolstering themselves in other registers, those of emotive rhetoric. An accusation of hypocrisy, levelled against suggestions of a morally strong course of action, is an affirmation of that course’s strength.

While that doesn’t help flush that rhetoric out of the ears of everyone listening to them, it does give you a range of arguments with which to fight back against those accusations. Monbiot happens to be one of the best writers of the well-paced paragraph since Victorian authors bloated them beyond all recognition, and Thackeray himself might be proud. He might approve of the message at the end of George’s recent piece too:

Sure we are hypocrites. Every one of us, almost by definition. Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations – they want to live more ethically – and they will always fall short. But the alternative to hypocrisy isn’t moral purity (no one manages that) but cynicism.

In reality it is people like Julie Burchell – who is incidentally far richer than almost any green I’ve met – who treat the poor with contempt. So that she can revel in what she calls “reckless, romantic modernism”, other people must die. But at least you can’t accuse her of hypocrisy: she cannot fail to live by her moral code, because she doesn’t have one. Give me hypocrisy any day.

Stylistically, that might seem a little too obvious to Thackeray, somewhat inflated and emotive. But then, he might admit, that’s Captain Dobbin and all those other “hypocrites” for you: meek when insulted; grandiloquent when angered; but, ultimately, utterly compassionate towards their fellow man.

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