Navigating hypocrisy
July 23, 2022 10:43 AM   Subscribe

I am constantly identifying ways in which I am a hypocrite, and it's unsettling.

Apologies for the poorly written and sprawly post - this one is hard to articulate clearly and succintly.

Recently, I've been spending time trying to identify my core values and beliefs. But the more I do this, the more I identify ways in which I am a total hypocrite. I want to live a life that is aligned with my values/beliefs, so when I identify these hypocrisies, I end up in a perpetual state of feeling "conflicted" about who I am. For example:

I am worried about climate change and my environmental footprint. I'm also extremely worried about the state of the world, about overall sociopolitical decline, and about the world we are leaving future generations. And yet, I've been considering having children with my partner.

I disagree with Palestinian displacement and I feel a lot of anger towards Israeli-the apartheid state. But I purchased a SodaStream a few weeks ago, and I love it. (I knew about the company's reputation when I bought it. I am generating fewer aluminum cans each week and saving a lot of money.)

I am seeing calls to boycott Walgreens over recent news about pharmacists' refusal to fill birth control prescriptions. But Walgreens is the most convenient pharmacy for me, and if I move my prescriptions to another store further away, I am likely to procrastinate on picking up refills.

I like the idea of reusing/upcycling as much as possible. But I also enjoy buying new things. Buying new means that I can use my money to buy the exact style/color/etc. that I want. I've tried to buy used furniture before, but I'm very perfectionistic/OCD about "stuff" and I get upset about every ding and scratch. I've tried buying used clothing before, but I can't stand the way that it is worn-out/faded/stretched out.

Amazon is the worst. And yet, it is a lifeline for me. When my depression spirals mean that I can't manage to shower and put on clothes, I still can manage to get essential items delivered to me rapidly. I hate that I love it as much as I do.

I value the pursuit of meaning over the pursuit of money. And I'd prefer to have a career that contributes to the wellbeing of the world more than it detracts from it. But a few years ago, I left my meaningful non-profit career and began to work for an IT company. And after ten years of struggling, I was finally able to afford my own house and virtually eliminate my financial anxieties.

I could go on. I feel like a massive hypocrite in so many areas of my life - most often as it relates to my views on environmentalism, capitalism, etc. Is it selfish and wrong to live out of alignment with your own views, if doing so means your own well-being is enhanced? How do you reconcile your own hypocrisy?
posted by Anonymouse1618 to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
When I clicked your [more inside] I was expecting something like “I’m a marriage counselor but I cheat on my partner” or “I’m a prosecutor who compulsively shoplifts.” But it turns out you hate yourself for… wanting to have kids? Shopping at chains?

What you are describing is not hypocrisy. It is a feeling that people with power deliberately cultivate in people without power in order to make them blame themselves for systemic problems they have no actual power to change.

When you say you’re “very perfectionistic/OCD,” I’m curious if that’s just a turn of phrase or if you have some clinical anxiety spiraling going on, because I recognize some of these feelings from times when I’ve been struggling with my anxiety.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:08 AM on July 23, 2022 [37 favorites]

Best answer: I don’t think life is can ever be based on the idea of ‘do not harm.’ I think ‘do as little harm as possible’ is the goal — harm reduction. Your first job is to keep yourself sane and stable. Period. Your good actions can only flow from places where you have extra capacity.

Our current world, constructed as it is on monopolies, leaves narrower and narrower options for navigating away from harmful forces. When you are up to it, choose one of those things - say, the pharmacy. Spend an afternoon researching options. On your bad days, what do you think is your distance limit? 10 minutes from your home? 15? If an option exists inside of that window, look into it. If not, see if you can make changes in the next item on your list.

And be gentle with yourself. Your impulses are coming from a place of deep compassion. But unless you have near unlimited resources or unlimited time, everything you listed is hard to manage in a way that is 100% in line with your core values. That doesn’t mean that you still can’t be an agent of good.
posted by Silvery Fish at 11:09 AM on July 23, 2022 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I think it's almost impossible to constantly live up to high ideals and live as a person in the world we live in. It's just not set up for us to succeed. You want to buy no plastic with your vegetables? Fine, you need to travel 3 miles to the nearest plastic-free shop, which takes up fuel and time which you could otherwise be - I dunno - using to campaign for environmental change.

You want to never buy new? But you live in a world where companies pour millions and millions of dollars into surrounding you with messages that have been very expertly tailored to give you a powerful urge to buy new things.

You want to live a life of humble means, with a career that contributes to the planet, and always buy ethically? But you also have mental health needs and doing those things would mean you're so poor that you are left mentally ill, and unable to meet your needs when at a low ebb. It's hard to willingly tip yourself into mental illness to meet your ethical aspirations, no matter how strongly held.

The whole of being human is just constantly balancing all these things and doing the best you can with what you've got. Noticing the hypocrisy and being honest with yourself about it, and taking what incremental steps you can over the long term to keep doing better is not a bad approach.
posted by penguin pie at 11:10 AM on July 23, 2022 [12 favorites]

These things don't feel hypocritical to me because you're a mammal who first & foremost has to follow your instincts & keep yourself alive. You're also bound to the truth that none of us are capable of fixing systemic issues on our own. That's the situation we were born into. Its ok to keep yourself alive & follow your instincts that tell you to wash, eat, hear music, and reproduce.
posted by bleep at 11:10 AM on July 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

Have you read "The Myth of Sisyphus"? The thesis doesn't perfectly overlap with your question, bit it overlaps enough. We do what we can and yet we suffer. Our tasks are Sisyphean. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy" in his neverending tasks. In the case of personal hypocrisy, perhaps you can find joy in the perpetual reexamination of your beliefs and actions.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:11 AM on July 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

Another thing I want to add is you haven't watched The Good Place it's an allegory for thinking about this very dilemma.
posted by bleep at 11:12 AM on July 23, 2022 [18 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi JimN2TAW, apologies for the lack of clarity. I have been diagnosed with anxiety and OCD, so this was not used off-handedly.
posted by Anonymouse1618 at 11:24 AM on July 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

Most of your concerns are the reason the phrase "there is no ethical consumption under capitalism" was invented. Sure, each of us makes decisions based in part on the perceived ethics of the company we buy from, but there is exactly one case in which such an attitude should be regarded as a moral priority on any level: when there is a specific, organized boycott campaign by an identifiable group of (for instance) workers linked to a concrete escalation strategy. In many cases even when there is a strike it is not in fact in the workers' interest for sales of a product to drop since that can serve as an excuse to close down production lines.

All the other free-floating "boycotts" where you have a vague sense that you shouldn't be buying Goya or Amazon have effectively zero impact regardless of how bad the company is. Feel free to engage in these if it makes you feel good for one reason or another (I have a shifting mental list of brands and types of products I don't buy) but there is no reason to feel guilty if it doesn't work for you, because your withholding or not withholding your consumer dollars has no practical effect. I am not aware of any situation in which such a free-floating boycott campaign resulted in actual positive change. (Again, I'm not talking about Cesar Chavez here.)

Personally, I consider BDS an organized boycott campaign so I don't buy HP, Sodastream, etc based on their recommendations. But it's been going for decades without much visible effect (except for Sodastream closing down one of its factories) so at some point it might be fair to decide that the practical impact is too limited to constrain your options as a consumer. Either way, your personal contribution to Israeli apartheid in that case is so minor you should not spend any time worrying about it.
posted by derrinyet at 11:42 AM on July 23, 2022 [12 favorites]

There is a lot of black and white thinking in your post. Some examples:

-Buying new = bad, buying used = good. I mean, yes, it's good to buy used, but not all "new" things are equally bad. What's the worst are items that aren't built to last, like $5 t-shirts that are guaranteed to end up in a landfill before long. If you can afford it, supporting companies that are committed to sustainability is another way to let your ethics inform your consumerism.

-Using Amazon only sparingly or when you're in crisis is much better than using Amazon all of the time for everything.

-Being able to afford your own house and eliminate your financial anxieties has no doubt freed up mental space and resources to help others.

In short, I agree with those suggesting you're being too hard on yourself.
posted by coffeecat at 12:13 PM on July 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

Just to go against the grain a bit -- if you're buying a sodastream, furniture, and new things generally, then I'm going to assume you are a reasonably-comfortably-off person financially. If that genuinely isn't the case (my personal test for this is, do you always know without looking what your bank balance is, if you have one, within $50/the equivalent in local currency?) then I apologise, but otherwise: yeah, you're kind of a hypocrite. You're choosing comfort quite a lot (or at least, your explanations boil down to comfort), and that's possibly a fairly lazy choice.

Counterpoints from my own experience:

I love sparkling water but I don't love it enough to ignore the environmental, economic, and political costs of drinking it daily (or even monthly). Tap water is a gift of organised society that we overlook to our peril, and I drink it 98% of the time. Does this make me a bit sad sometimes? Sure, but on the other hand I don't feel like an asshole every time I walk into the kitchen.

I boycott Amazon (shopping; I realise they basically host the whole internet), even though it's futile. Do I sometimes have to wait for my local shop to get the thing I want, when it *needs* to be that thing specifically? Yes, and I acknowledge that they might just be buying it from Amazon in lieu (although I have no idea). But did I feel ethically lighter when I canceled my Amazon credit card and cut myself off from the URL? Yes I did.

Things that are less futile, but much harder: I stopped driving. It's only possible because I lived first in a city where I could cycle everywhere local, and then later in a place with outstanding (if gobsmackingly expensive) public transportation -- and I have a lot of control over my schedule, so I can cope when a journey most people think of as 5 minutes takes me 20. Still, every single week, I encounter something that makes me second-guess my decision. So far I've hung on, though, because I hate every single car on the road with a burning, angry passion. Cars are destroying the world, and I don't want to be a part of it. And yes, I've accepted at least 30 lifts from car drivers this year already; as someone said above, we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and normalising car shares is a functional step in the right direction.

So, I'm not wearing a hair shirt: I also fly somewhere three or four times a year for work and pleasure, and I eat produce grown in far-flung places, probably in exploitative circumstances, and flown/trucked here, so I can have my favorite veggies out of season/out of place. And I'm sure a gazillion other things. What I'm trying to say is, I try to gauge the inconvenience of my ethical stances realistically; I try to make a real distinction between wants, needs, and the things that fall somewhere in between.

As everyone here says, there are structural issues with capitalism that we aren't going to change by boycotting Walgreens. But political change happens slowly and through word of mouth and through peer pressure: so if every time someone says "do you want fizzy water?" you say, "actually, I drink tap water, because it's a modern miracle, environmentally friendly, and doesn't support Israeli human rights abuses even indirectly," then the impact you're having goes beyond your individual consumer choice. Perhaps one way to think about this is to consider that (for example) an individual woman chaining herself to a fence outside the White House or writing a letter to her representative didn't get women the vote, but a century of feminist discourse in which that act participated did.

I mean, if capitalism produces rhetoric so powerful it makes most everyone exposed to it into consumerist lemmings (which I take to be self-evident), isn't it possible that the rhetoric encouraging us to believe our patterns of consumption don't really matter and may therefore ethically continue is *also* a product of capitalism?
posted by obliquicity at 12:26 PM on July 23, 2022 [7 favorites]

Did you ever watch the tv show "The Good Place"?

It confronted questions like "What does it mean to be a good person?" and "Why should we try to be good?". Typical stuff for a half hour American sit-com, really.

At one point a very similar issue was raised. It's hard to be good, because doing anything in today's world involves a web of interactions, some of which are good and some of which are bad. If you call your mother on Mother's day, that's good! But, you used a cell phone made with child labor in China. That's bad. But, you voted for a candidate who called China out. That's good. Oh, you drove to the ballot drop off in your car. That's bad. But, you are keeping your old car rather than dumping it and buying a new one. That's good.

So, overall, did you do good? It's hard to tell.

Just because it's hard doesn't mean you should just shrug and stop caring. But just because you care doesn't mean that all this isn't really hard.

I can counter a lot of things that you've said and show why the opposite is actually the good thing. Kids? I think that in order to solve our problems we need people. We particularly need awesome people like the kids you would raise. If you don't want kids then that's great, too, but I don't think it's great in the "right for the world" sense, just in the "right for you" sense.

Driving to the most convenient pharmacy saves gas. That's good.

Like new stuff? I do, too. Buying new helps businesses that support people right now. Buying used keeps stuff out of landfills. That's important, too, but so is eating.

Climate change? Hey, do your part, but note that your personal contribution isn't a huge part of it. I'm told to water my lawn less, but it's agriculture that is using all the water in California. This is the sort of thing where collective action is vastly more powerful than anything you can do. Voting for people who want to transition to green energy will do much more than your throwing solar panels on your roof will (which, again, as a personal thing may be great).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:55 PM on July 23, 2022 [8 favorites]

I want to address obliquicity's answer and then duck out of the thread so I'm not taking up too much space. I don't want to suggest feelings of being "ethically lighter" are invalid, but they are just that, feelings. Many people feel like they're being ethical when they buy USDA organic produce even though USDA organic farming (not permaculture etc) uses greater quantities of more indiscriminately destructive pesticides than conventional farming. Many self-consciously ethical consumers would buy Amy's Kitchen products over Kraft even though Amy's Kitchen engages in egregious workplace safety violations and union-busting and Kraft has a strong union (though obviously not without its problems). Consistently making an ethical decision requires a large expenditure of time and mental energy in proportion to its material impact, and this is further muddied by the fact that "ethical consumption" often serves as yet another consumer marketing strategy that conceals underlying exploitation. Yes, all other things being equal, someone who uses a Sodastream contributes more to Israeli apartheid than someone who drinks tap water. But the effects of that are dwarfed by the effects of, say, what congressional district you happen to live and vote in. The gradualist word-of-mouth view of political change is, I would argue, not well-supported historically, but that's a different conversation.

What we're talking about here is a situation in which the asker is in distress because of the complexities of these ethical calculations, and it is unhelpful to amplify that distress by reinforcing their perceptions of their own "hypocrisy" (aka being a normal human being in a capitalist society that makes ethical behavior difficult by design).

I would suggest that a more productive approach would be something like this. Draw two axes on a sheet of paper: a Y axis that records the ethical impact of something and an X axis that records your power over it. In the top left corner you would see things like "banning factory farming"--something with a huge ethical impact but which you personally wouldn't be able to bring about. In the bottom left corner you would have most things that you do in your life. In the bottom right corner you have all the things you're so anxious and guilty about--consumer choices the individual ethical impact of which is fairly low. In the top right corner you have a sweet spot, things that are important and that you can meaningfully affect. For instance, if you were in a position to decide whether your company recognizes a union or not, that would be an ethical action with a high degree of impact.

The next time you get caught up in a cycle of anxiety about your hypocrisy, identify something in the top right corner that you can work on. Only if you've exhausted all the possible options in that area should you worry about the bottom right corner.
posted by derrinyet at 1:23 PM on July 23, 2022 [29 favorites]

there is some relief in bluntly acknowledging that not all of your principles are as important to you as your physical comfort or private emotional satisfaction. that relief, which comes from seeing clearly and speaking honestly, cannot be derived from platitudes about life's complexity and humanity's wonderful imperfections and something existing in tension with something else and blah blah blah. those platitudes just add to a lurking anxiety about whether or not they are meaningful (no) or just an excuse (yes) and make you feel bad, in the same way that suspecting your own hypocrisy makes you feel bad.

however, living a life fully consistent with all your principles is very hard, and when you have a lot of principles, there is no way they are all exactly as important as each other. some of them are not that important at all. some of them, it doesn't really matter if you, personally, violate them from time to time or even all the time.

like: if you are going to be in discomfort or worse if you don't get your prescription medication reliably, I do not think you need to resolve the contradiction of opposing pharmacy X's terrible policies while still shopping there. if this is a big source of unhappiness for you, maybe offset whatever money you spend there with a contribution to an appropriate fund. but your health is important enough to justify somewhat undesirable means of maintaining it, particularly considering that almost all other chain pharmacies are terrible too.

but something like shopping at amazon? that, you can just stop doing. if you need deliveries, you need deliveries, but in the vast majority of places amazon is not the only company that can deliver things. there isn't complexity in this one. if you think it is bad to shop at amazon you can stop. you have that power.

and so on for the rest of your concerns. there are mitigating circumstances for a lot of things. only you can know if your own personal circumstances make it reasonable to do something you think is bad. sometimes you have no other choice. but sometimes, you just want to do the thing. and when you just want to do the thing that you sincerely believe is bad, you have the option of not doing it. not doing it feels great.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:47 PM on July 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

It’s really hard to live ethically under capitalism. That’s it, that’s the tweet.

First of all having kids is important for the future of everyone (we need a next generation to take care of us, fix things, etc), so if you want a reasobable number of children, by all means have them. They will inherit a planet with a shitty climate but odds are high they’ll still find their lives worthwhile.

I make some of the same compromises you do in terms of retail (shopping at chains I hate), and for some of the same reasons (I don’t have enough hours in the day to avoid Amazon). Big companies are carefully designed to make it easy to use them. Small companies can’t keep up.

Personally I “compensate” by making other choices that I feel aligned with - I buy stuff from small businesses in my neighbourhood most weekends & whenever I can online, especially if owned by people from historically-oppressed groups. I donate money and items to causes I believe in and tell others about them. I used to volunteer and will again when my kids are older. Etc, etc.

I would say put a bit less anxiety on what you do bad, and add in some things you can do that are good, instead.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:56 PM on July 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

The process of figuring out which of one's competing ideals and desires one will work with is a rich vein of growing-into-ourselves fodder. It seems to me that thinking deeply about what lies behind these ideals and desires for a period of time (that you get to define) would be more helpful, overall, than naming the actions "hypocrisy" and spending time and energy on self-blame.

Would spending a specific amount of time (say, one hour? one day? one week?) thinking about what the conflicts you feel are, before taking an action that you feel conflicted about, help?

There are probably alternatives to most of the actions you feel conflicted about, that allowing yourself such time might reveal. A few that come to mind and may or may not work for you are: mail order pharmacy; adding Amazon-circumventing systems to your life; learning to mend things that break; Non-BDS-violating sparkling water generators (I use ISI, for that very reason.) Some of these will obviously NOT work for you. That's fine: you get to figure out what your own compromises are for your own life.
The trick is to allow yourself the time to think about these conflicts as an opportunity to be MORE yourself than you would have been without giving it that thought (rather than falling into a cycle of self-blame, self-loathing, and generally diminishing yourself.)
posted by Shunra at 9:07 PM on July 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

My premiere hobgoblin was the children starving to death while I bought a Wii instead of giving the money to UNICEF. That disturbed me a lot and I could never philosophize my way out of it.

So, when I was in my mid-thirties I was visiting a country where children dying of starvation and disease is a regular thing. Walking down the street I passed an emaciated beggar girl, covered in sores and bruises, who was taking a nap with her bowl out.

I thought: "I can fix this. I can buy her from whatever begging clan she is part of, put her in a boarding school, pay for tutors and doctors and therapists, and try to make a huge difference in this one life."

And there in the presence of real, immediate suffering I got to find out the kind of man I am. And somewhat to my dismay I am the kind of man who put a few coins in her bowl and kept walking.

It turns out I’m not a saint. It is not in me to live perfectly up to my high ideals. I do the best I can and that’s going to have to be enough for me and everyone.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:59 PM on July 23, 2022

I think ‘do as little harm as possible’ is the goal

If that's too hard, try to do less harm than your neighbours.
posted by flabdablet at 5:51 AM on July 24, 2022

I'm late to this party, however, I have noticed that within my own life, my attempts at being non-hypocritical are a set up for failure. No matter how hard I try, I am never able to perfectly live up to my standards. This causes me to be stuck and beat myself up for my failures, which causes even more feelings of failure.

There are 3 things I can personally do to mitigate my own hypocrisy.

Realize there are no absolute thou shalt not's except for actions that cause immediate physical or emotional suffering to others or myself.

Delay gratification.Realize that I do not have all the information on whether an action is appropriate
to do now, but if I wait awhile I may make a better decision.

Practice compassion towards myself and all the other hypocrites (including Mitch McConnell). Realizing that in the end all of us fall short of our standards and a bit of kindness and compassion is more effective than to try to achieve unattainable standards.
posted by Xurando at 6:15 AM on July 24, 2022

Lots of good answers above and I agree that this is very complex. I think silvery fish’s suggestion to take small steps is the best way to move forward. Our soft human brains are literally not capable of considering all the things, all the time, so we do inevitably have to pick and choose. Trying to do everything, all at once, and perfectly, seems like an ideal recipe for feeling like a failure.

On that note, to focus on one thing, I wanted to say that your use of a Soda Stream to carbonate tap water is an excellent environmental choice, especially compared to drinking import mineral water and water in single use plastic bottles. Not to mention the practical benefits of a lighter grocery shop that won’t necessarily need a car like you would with a slab of water bottles from Costco.

Luckily, although that company is probably the best known from advertising, you probably have alternatives. Here in Australia, we have locally owned Soda King, Purezza for restaurants, etc.

So for this one tiny thing in your life, you might want to look for an alternative. I wouldn’t even necessarily give up the Soda Stream unit if it’s still working, to avoid generating waste from buying something new. Instead, you might look for compatible knock-off refill cartridges made by another company. The great part is that Soda Stream are most likely operating with the “printers vs ink” business model, where they make more money off of refills compared to the base unit. So you might just… get refills from someone else if you can find them?

But I do think if you have a job and a life, you can’t expect to do all of this all at once. It’s great that you’ve identified a few pain points but maybe just work on like one thing a month for sanity? My current eco issue is a search for a disposable lady razor made out of bamboo, which is less common than you’d think. (However I am quite pleased by my sonicare compatible refills made out of bamboo that I got from Sustainable Tomorrow, although I might try other brands as well.) In short, I feel your pain but you’ll probably feel better if you just work on like one thing at a time.
posted by ec2y at 6:57 AM on July 24, 2022

Is it selfish and wrong to live out of alignment with your own views, if doing so means your own well-being is enhanced? How do you reconcile your own hypocrisy?

I mean, look. would you rather try to be a good person, by your own private personal definition, or would you rather have people tell you not to think about it because nobody's a saint (read: only saints are capable of any self-sacrifice) and nobody's perfect (read: trying to be good is trying to be perfect, which can't be done, so being good can't be done either) and nobody can be expected to do what they deeply believe is right, not when it's hard, and not when it's easy either? the first one is difficult and involves some number of inevitable failures no matter how privileged or powerful you are. but the second one is extraordinarily degrading. extraordinarily.

you don't reconcile hypocrisy. you can stop it, if you choose. you can not only change some of your behavior, you can change some of your belief system, if you identify logical inconsistencies or ethical problems with it. you can look beyond consumer choices for ethics and you can re-examine the specific harm you think is caused by yours. or if you decide that you can't change your beliefs on that and won't change your behavior, you can just recognize it and live with it without compounding it by trying to justify the unjustifiable.

Is it selfish and wrong to live out of alignment with your own views, if doing so means your own well-being is enhanced

it is selfish by definition, almost comically so. but it is only wrong if your views are both right and very important. a big question.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:10 AM on July 24, 2022

I think looking at this as a question of hypocrisy is setting yourself up for failure. There is no right answer between what is good for you and what is good for the planet, others, etc. I err on the side of put on your oxygen mask first before helping others and it sounds like you are instead focused on making yourself miserable trying to help others with their oxygen masks while you are struggling to breathe. It is incredibly laudable to want to make decisions that help others. But I feel like you are focusing on things that require you to sacrifice something yourself and then you should feel good about this while you are simultaneously feeling worse.

Focus on putting on - and using - your oxygen mask. If that means using Amazon, then so be it. In your case, the good it does you will allow you in the future to alleviate the bad that it does to others.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 5:44 PM on July 24, 2022

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