The surprising origins of the the word Hypocrite

Oscar ceremony 2017

Guest post:

By Understater.

So the chickens have finally come home to roost for Harvey Weinstein. After years of using his considerable power and influence in Hollywood to prey on aspiring actresses, his whole world has come crashing down. He is now officially a pariah, and in this age of social media dishing out social justice, the denizens of Tinseltown have taken to Twitter en masse to express their shock, disgust, and outrage at the accusations, and to stand in solidarity with his growing list of victims. Victims who have finally found the strength in numbers required to turn the tide of public sentiment against the former mogul and utterly destroy him.

The social media pile-on has been fascinating to watch. Those who worked with Weinstein over the years have had to face an interesting moral dilemma, as have the many politicians who have benefited immensely from his many and generous donations. Some have chosen to plead ignorance of Weinstein’s sins, while others have probably more accurately claimed that they were well known. Some of the charges levelled against him are from women who then kept working on his films, and enjoyed considerable success. Possibly their ambition outweighed their revulsion, and if being preyed on by Weinstein was the price of admission into the industry then it was a price they were willing to pay. They should never have had to make such a choice, but choose they did. Others claim to have rejected his advances and watched their careers suffer or end as a result.

Perhaps most interesting of all has been watching Weinstein’s former friends throw him under the bus and distance themselves from him. One or two are now facing allegations of predatory sexual behaviour themselves, or of having deliberately run interference on his behalf to keep his antics out of the media.

It has all been spectacularly unsavoury, and given the nature of the film industry, frankly, rather hypocritical. Two things seem absolutely certain. One: That Weinstein’s behaviour was widely known and not at all unique, with power players everywhere preying on the young and ambitious, both male and female. And two: That a lot of people kept their mouths shut for fear of damaging their own careers.  All of which brings one major theme to my mind: Hypocrisy.

Hypocrite is a well know and commonly used word in the English language. We’ve all watched someone say one thing and do another and thought “what a hypocrite”, but what are its origins?

You may be surprised to learn that the term came from ancient Greek, and was popularized by an ancient sage by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. It was a term Jesus used as a stinging rebuke against the power players of his day: The Pharisees. The Pharisees were the most powerful religious sect of their day, enjoying a status in society, not unlike the Hollywood elite of today. At the same time, Greek cultural influence had spread widely, and many towns had Greek theatres where plays were staged, some of which were borderline pornographic. The actors in these Greek theatres were called “Hypocrites”.

The irony is delicious. Jesus ridiculed the elite of his day by calling them, actors.

But why was Jesus ridiculing them at all? Simply put, because the Pharisees were guilty of the most egregious virtue signalling. They were all about outward appearances, but underneath it all, they were utterly corrupt. They lived for the recognition and the perks that their social status afforded them and went out of their way to appear more religious, more devout, and more moral than the general populace that they disdainfully dismissed as “sinners”. But all the while they were morally completely bankrupt. You can read Jesus’s final public denunciation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. It’s worth a look even if you never open a Bible again.

One of the most serious charges Jesus levelled against them was “devouring widow’s houses”. In administering deceased estates they would rip off windows, often leaving them completely destitute. They preyed on those less powerful than themselves while basking in the power and the prestige of their status. At the same time, they would make a big show of their religious devotion, going out of their way to signal their virtue by wearing extra long tassels on their religious robes and making conspicuously large donations at the temple. Like Jesus said, they were just playing a part. They were just acting.

So what is the take away here?

Well, Jesus also preached that we are all sinners. We all make moral decisions based on our own self-interest. We all do things that we know to be wrong, and we all indulge in virtue signalling to make ourselves look better than we are. We rationalize and seek to minimize our own sins, at the same time magnifying or fixating on the sins of others. Jesus invited us to admit who and what we really are. We are all sinners. We are all hypocrites to some degree, signalling our virtues and hiding our faults. We are all actors.

Maybe if we all stopped trying to signal our virtue and got down to the much harder business of actually being virtuous, then the world would be a better place.

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