The ‘I’ in this passage — from section 51 of Song of Myself, by poet Walt Whitman — stands as a reference to the erratic and self-contradictory ways in which people think and act out their lives.
Whitman is drawing attention to an everyday experience that defines the human condition — people do not, and cannot, live pure and ascetic lives. In saying ‘I contain multitudes,’ what Whitman is really highlighting is that we all contain multitudes, a mess of perspectives and sentiments that leave us in a state of perpetual hypocrisy.
So say it with me now — we are all hypocrites.
The way in which we think, act, feel and live is wrought with self-denial, contradiction and inconsistency. In a recent piece, I highlighted how various logical fallacies work as psychological flaws that twist and distort our decision-making abilities, making it virtually impossible for someone to make a truly unbiased and impartial choice about anything.
What’s more, because so much of our thought processes are subconscious, our internal contradictions and irregularities rarely register at a more conscious level. And thus our unwillingness to realize this means we tend to think everyone is a hypocrite but us.
According to Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite, by evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, the reason we seem unwilling to make an effort to realize our inherent irrationalities is because in Western society, a flattering self-image is directly correlated with personal rewards such as greater senses of emotional stability, motivation and perseverance.
So instead of a more self-reflexive populace that understands everyone — including oneself — is full of contradictions, and more importantly, that it’s entirely natural to have some analytical imperfections, we’ve become a society of self-denial, where a person’s opinions can be easily discredited unless they practice an impossibly monastic lifestyle.
These beliefs create a delusional world. A world where the status quo can never really change because people are expected to actively practice everything they preach, even though, as Kurzban notes, the human mind — my mind, your mind — is modular, and as such, consists of a large number of specialized parts, each of which, because they are separated from one another, can simultaneously hold mutually contradictory views.
Take environmentalism. Challenging fracking practices, protesting a pipeline, objecting to further developments in the oilsands — like clockwork, activists who take these kinds of actions are immediately levelled with accusations of hypocrisy based on the tenuous notion that an environmentalists’ own reliance on fossil fuels means their protests against the practices of the oil and gas industries are akin to the tired old idiom of the pot calling the kettle black.
After all, as political economist Robert Reich stresses in his book Supercapitalism, trying to live the perfect green lifestyle in an economic system that is structurally designed to produce waste, overconsumption and fossil fuel dependence as predictably as it produces inequality, job insecurity and unrequited exploitation, is an indisputably impossible task.
As such, the notion that environmentalists — such as Neil Young for example — have no right to criticize oilsands developments, pipelines or fracking because they ‘choose’ to heat their homes and drive cars is downright nonsensical. By the empty rhetoric of this argument, not a single Canadian citizen could legitimately engage in any form of critical public discourse because to an extent, we all benefit from the system we are critiquing.
We live in a society where it is impossible to live a functional lifestyle and not consume products made from petro-chemicals every single day — electronics, fabrics, painkillers, food additives, cosmetics, fabrics, cleaning supplies, building materials, the list goes on.
More than ever, it is precisely because it is incredibly difficult to survive outside of our wasteful, exploitative and fossil fuel-obsessed system that we need environmentalists and other activists — yes, even if they own a cellphone and wear cheaply manufactured clothing — advocating for alternative means of production and modes of consumption.
Because if the prerequisite for a legitimate criticism is a complete and utter distancing from the object of which we are critiquing, than fossil fuels, the economy and politics are all off limits. Moreover, students can’t confront the administration of their university because it determines their grades. Workers can’t question the management of their company because it signs their paychecks. Christians can’t challenge interpretations of the Bible because they ascribe to the religion. Married people can’t oppose sexism because marriage was originally an institution of patriarchy and female subordination.
But many of us do these things anyway, don’t we?
Many of us question the very government that provides us with healthcare, the very economic system that fills the supermarket, the companies that pay us, the universities that grade us, the religions that save us, the patriarchies that subjugate us, and yes, the very fossil fuels that provide us with the countless resources society needs to function.
Due to our very nature and the inescapable realities of the market, our political system and our reliance on fossil fuels, speaking up is always hypocritical. And as such, we need to be mindful of the fact that more often than not, charges of ‘hypocrisy’ brought against those trying to think beyond our current system tend to be nothing but attempts by those in power to keep us from challenging their ascendancy.
If we understand hypocrisy as the inevitable consequence of questioning practices and policies so dominant that it’s nearly impossible to function without participating in them, then hypo-critical thought is vital if society is to move beyond the status quo. After all, how, for instance, can we begin to imagine a future beyond fossil fuels if each attempt to question their primacy invokes cries of hypocrisy from the titans of the resource industry?
The answer is simple: we can’t — and that’s just the way Big Oil wants it to stay.
So the next time someone accuses you of being a hypocrite for criticizing the inescapable structures of society from within, remember every government reformed, social injustice abolished, inequality rebalanced and environmentally destructive practice eradicated has been made possible by people who were willing to act on thoughts that were at one time deemed contradictory to the status quo.