‘A Recipe for Hatred’: Why Boris Johnson May Finally Have Gone Too Far

The New York Times, January 22, 2022

Moral hypocrisy — behaving badly while simultaneously hectoring the rest of us to do good — evokes a level of anger that neither lying nor wrongdoing bring out on their own, studies have repeatedly found.

As if to underscore the backlash that such transgressions can bring, the tennis star Novak Djokovic simultaneously faces, after his own long record of controversies never quite catching up with him, severe professional damage over accusations that he fabricated or obfuscated in his application for an exemption to Australia’s Covid vaccination requirement.

The incident has become a flashpoint in global debates over vaccine rules. But it has also inspired fierce anger perhaps in part because Mr. Djokovic was seeking to benefit from society’s compliance with those rules, which made Australia safe enough to hold the tournament in which he was scheduled to play. And he has done it while bending or breaking those same rules to satisfy his own desires to avoid the vaccine and travel freely.

“Hypocrites employ a double layer of deception,” the neuroscientist Erman Misirlisoy has written in an essay on this behavior’s special power to anger people.

The first layer: urging others around them to follow rules that will benefit them, even if only implicitly by signaling their support for those rules. For example, Mr. Djokovic telling Australian officials (and, on social media, his fans) that he is upholding the country’s Covid rules so that he might play in its tennis tournament.

The second layer — lying about their own compliance — so offends because it amounts to undercutting the very collective effort they demanded of others.

The writer Hannah Arendt, reflecting on society’s loathing for hypocrisy, called it “the vice of vices.” While terrible crimes might “confront us with the perplexity of radical evil,” she wrote, “only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

As Dr. Misirlisoy wrote,“This is a recipe for hatred when caught out.”

But why?

“When you stop to think about it, it’s actually a psychological puzzle,” Jillian Jordan, a Yale University psychologist who studies this behavior, has said. Everyone occasionally breaks social norms or rules that they otherwise support.

And hypocrisy is hardly unusual among public figures. Athletes project regular-joe public images while living amid yacht-and-helicopter splendor. Mr. Djokovic has emphasized new age togetherness while appearing alongside Serbian ultranationalists.

Some psychologists believe that moral hypocrisy represents, in a way, an attack on the social contract itself.

Since our origin as a species, societies have functioned on an implicit pact: each of us is better off if we all contribute to the common good, even if it means giving some things up.

This only works if everyone trusts that everyone else will go along. If that collapses, so do each individual’s incentive to serve the common good.

In the nomadic tribes where our communal instincts evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, this was a matter of life and death. Without trusting cooperation, the group would perish.

(The pandemic has returned those life-and-death stakes, not to mention imperative of individual sacrifice for the sake of communal welfare, in the form of masks, vaccines and social distancing, which may be why sensitivity to moral hypocrisy suddenly seems so acute.)

Moral hypocrites turn this spirit of shared obligation against the very group it is meant to serve. They hoard the fruits of collective sacrifice for themselves — Mr. Djokovic jetting between societies made safe for him by grueling restrictions — and in ways that undermine the benefits for everyone else.

And, when their hypocrisy is revealed, it sends a dangerous signal: You, too, can enjoy the benefits of everyone else’s work while only pretending to go along.

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