The Case for Hypocrisy


To the Editors of The Crimson:

On May 9, The Crimson ran an editorial titled "Be Consistent" on the subject of Harvard's association with scholarships that discriminate against various groups. If Harvard refuses to take money from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), you argued, it must also refuse to take money from other scholarships that discriminate (e.g. Boy Scouts and religious organizations). In your words, if Harvard refuses to accept money from ROTC but takes it from others, then Harvard is "playing hypocrisy."

The editorial caught my interest because I am in Air Force ROTC at MIT. I want to make clear that any opinion expressed in this letter is my own, and should not be interpreted as the opinion of Air Force ROTC or any part of the military.

The purpose of my letter, however, is not to discuss whether Harvard should accept ROTC scholarship money; in fact, the virtues or vices of ROTC scholarships are entirely irrelevant to the point I want to make. I want to question your attitude toward hypocrisy.

The word "hypocrisy" has two meanings. It can mean acting contrary to one's stated beliefs, or it can be used more loosely to mean having two opinions that are mutually contradictory. The former kind of hypocrisy is truly loathsome, and anyone who is guilty of it deserves criticism.

However, it is the latter kind of hypocrisy that you are concerned with in your editorial. You assume that anyone who is guilty of the latter kind of hypocrisy should likewise be criticized for inconsistency. I think that this assumption will not stand up to scrutiny.

When you demanded "consistency" from Harvard, the first thing that came to my mind was a similar situation that I read about in an American history class. In the mid-1800s, certain members of Congress were arguing in favor of Black male suffrage on the grounds that all men are endowed with the same rights.

Their opponents accused them of hypocrisy; if their egalitarian argument were taken to its logical extreme, they would also have to advocate women's suffrage, which was at the time considered absurd.

So the argument was defeated because proponents of Black suffrage had to choose between being hypocrites and extremists. Either way, they would lose the argument, even though their ideas represented an important step in social progress.

The same resistance to change is evident today. People are rarely willing to change immediately from one extreme to another. So when society does change from one extreme to another, it will occcur in small, gradual steps. Each of the two extremes is logically consistent--one is completely right and the other completely wrong--which means that anything in between will involve some degree of hypocrisy.

In other words, hypocritical viewpoints are essential to progress from wrong ideas to right ideas. Of course, hypocritical viewpoints can also be dangerous because they may set small precedents that lead society to rapid decline.

Whether Harvard's dissociation from ROTC represents progress or decline is an issue that must be debated on its own merits, not analyzed for hypocrisy, because you can never tell whether hypocrisy represents progress or decline.

If we lived in a world unafraid of drastic change, there would be no need for gradual change, and therefore no need for hypocritical in-betweens. The real world has shown me that this is not the case.

I realize that advocating hypocrisy as necessary--even though I acknowledge its dangers--will come as a shock to most people. When this idea first occurred to me, I found it a bit difficult to accept. But now I believe strongly in the necessity of hypocrites. I hope that others will consider my opinion with an open mind. Robert Adams

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