The Difference Between Hypocrisy and Irony
Irony exposes its inconsistency; hypocrisy denies it.
Posted November 19, 2020
Hypocrisy means contradicting ourselves, being inconsistent, talking out of both sides of our mouths. But that’s also what irony means. What then distinguishes hypocrisy from irony?
A hypocrite denies their inconsistencies. They’ll insist that they’re being consistent no matter what. If you think they’re being inconsistent, they’ll insist that you’ve misinterpreted them. Hypocrisy is thus the pretense of consistency to hide one’s inconsistency. The only thing consistent about a hypocrite is their insistence that they’re being consistent.
For example, a troll will switch midsentence between playing pope and punk, moralizing at others for not following rules that they flout proudly. One moment they’re scolding you from atop their high horse for not living up to their high moral standards; the next moment they’re ridiculing you for caring about moral standards. If you try to expose their hypocrisy, they’ll just double down on their double standards. “I’m not the hypocrite, you are.” For hypocrites, inconsistencies are other people’s problem, not theirs.
In contrast, an ironist is exposing their inconsistencies for all to see. Take an ironic statement like “No seriously, I’m just kidding,” which is obviously both serious and kidding, or “That’s my story and I’m sticking with it,” which is both an admission to it being a story and commitment to the story. By exposing our internal contradictions, irony highlights the human relationship with reality. Irony teases out the inconsistencies that reside in all of us.
In his bestselling book, On Bullsh*t, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt distinguishes between lying and BSing: Lying is knowing you’re not telling the truth; BSing is not caring what’s true. A hypocrite is to their inconsistencies what a bullsh***er is to falsehoods. Hypocrites just don’t care if they’re talking out both sides of their mouths, and no one can make them care.
As a side note, It’s a civic tragedy that we’re stuck with a vulgar term like BS. We have to teach children from an early age not to grow up to be BSers, but we can’t use the term because it’s too vulgar. That’s like what it would be like to potty train toddlers if the only term for poop were some vulgarity you couldn’t use with children. That’s also a problem with the term “ahole.” Teaching people not to be aholes should start young and yet the prevalent term is one we can’t use with the young.
Here’s a way to test for the difference between hypocrisy and irony. Many of our popular moral rules contradict themselves. For example:
“One shouldn’t be judgmental” is judgmental.
“Commit yourself to flexibility” is inflexible.
“Say no to negativity” is negative.
“Be intolerant of intolerance” is intolerant.
“Hate hate” is hateful.
“Join the faction that doesn’t take sides” takes sides.
Even the Golden Rule, which can be rephrased as “Compromise always so no one has to compromise” is both uncompromising and compromising.
In these inconsistencies, an ironist recognizes and embraces something fundamental about life: We’re all dealing with paradoxes that corner us with tough judgment calls. For example, deciding what to tolerate and not tolerate.
A hypocrite will take the inconsistencies as an invitation to not care about their inconsistencies, only other people’s. They’ll use these paradoxes as ways to deflect criticism, for example saying “LOL! You hate my hate. That means I don’t have to listen to you!”
To an ironist, paradoxes expose challenges inherent to the human condition. To a hypocrite, paradoxes are just more weapons in their moralizing one-upping arsenal.
Ironists don’t just laugh at others for their inconsistencies; they laugh at themselves too. Irony is a way of laughing at us all with us all. You hear irony in stand-up comedy in which the comedian makes self-effacing jokes about their conflicted minds, jokes we can all relate to. When an ironist talks out both sides of their mouths, they highlighting the un-closeable gap between their convictions and reality, their word, and our world.
Obviously, I’m a fan of irony and not hypocrisy. I can tell by my visceral response to listening to someone weighing their options, being of two minds about something. I can listen all day to someone who admits they’re of two minds, but I get very restless with someone who doesn’t; who I hear talking out of both sides of their mouths, insists they aren’t, and automatically blames me for misunderstanding them.
You may have heard the quip that nature has a liberal bias. From a scientific perspective, there’s something to it. Liberalness is letting things fall as they may. The second law of thermodynamics is considered about as fundamental as it gets in our universe. It’s the tendency for order to degenerate and it doesn’t just apply to heat as the name implies. For example, if you drop a box of toothpicks, they’re much more likely to fall unaligned than aligned.
Given the second law, yes nature has a liberal bias. But life has a conservative bias. The struggle for existence active in every organism is a struggle against the second law; it’s an effort to preserve order despite the liberal tendency toward disorder throughout our universe.
Still, given nature’s liberal bias, we’d do well to accept some disorder. Hypocrites don’t. They pretend that they’re eternally aligned in perfect consistency, and they police the world for inconsistencies as though everyone should be as consistent as they are.
I’d argue that nature has an ironic bias too. Ours is a slapstick universe as you’ve probably experienced or at least witnessed in adorable cat videos. You go to achieve one thing and end up doing the opposite. The move that would save you in one situation will doom you in another. That inherent, inescapable irony is what ironists embrace and hypocrites deny. For example, know-it-alls are hypocrites who play God. God never gets tripped up the way cats do in those adorable videos.
Frankfurt, Harry (2005) On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.