Moral Ideology I: The Vital Importance of Hypocrisy, Research Time, 18/06/2014

My paternal grandparents grew up outside a town in Calabria called Cosenza. They were devoted Catholics all their lives. At their house in Montréal, they always had an up to date photo of the Pope on their living room wall. Even when it was Emperor Palpatine. But they weren’t what we typically think of as Catholics in that community. As important as the Church was in their lives, one practice would be very strange to most members of that Church today. In those little towns, if the local priest didn’t live with a girlfriend, people didn’t trust him.

Father Ted featured a cast almost entirely of hypocritical
blowhards, and Bishop Len Brennan blew the hardest.
Central to Catholic doctrine for centuries has been the celibacy of the clergy. My own experience of the Catholic clergy has long included just that kind of hypocrisy. I’ve mentioned before how the excessive and oppressive piety of the Catholic Church in my home province of Newfoundland covered up the institutionalization of violence against children, sexual and otherwise, in their educational and care institutions. Probably my favourite depiction of Catholic life is the classic Irish sitcom Father Ted, whose strict, enraged antagonist Bishop Len Brennan used his influence in the Church to amass considerable personal profit, and maintained a secret family with a young woman, including a son, in America. 

Yet here were my salt-of-the-Earth Italian grandparents, sly if lethargic resisters of Mussolini (even if it was only hiding most of their harvest from the tax collectors and deserting from the army to get drunk in the woods for two years), calmly accepting the hypocrisy of their Church leaders, moral and spiritual advisers. In fact, the hypocrisy of the town priest was a sign of his trustworthiness. If the priest adhered to the vow of celibacy, he was suspect. How could hypocrisy be considered a virtue?

Well, Antonio Gramsci makes a good case for explaining precisely how. In most societies, the people whose role is enforcing moral norms like priests, teachers, and policemen constitute a different class than the people who are in their charge. This may not be so in terms of their economic class, but their professions and places in the community gives them a veneer of prestige that elevates them socially above those they guide. This social prestige turns these moral enforcers into an elite, and elites end up acting as oppressors, at some intensity.

Usually, the intensity of oppression is very low and social tension of the moral elite and the controlled masses simmers lightly, constituting community stability. But where the power of the elite over the masses grows too great, oppression becomes too powerful to be tolerated. Yet the elites remain in a position as the enforcers of the good; to stop submitting to them would be immoral.

Here, hypocrisy acts as a social safety valve. As the power of an elite grows, their ability to profit personally from their social status grows. Such profit would be hypocrisy. Its revelation will either humanize the elites and reconnect them with their community, as in the Cosenzan example, or provoke such anger in the community that they are overthrown, as we did in Newfoundland, razing the Mt Cashel orphanage to the ground and dismantling the faith-segregated public school system. Moral hypocrisy among socially empowered elites is what prevents oppression from becoming too violent. 

Because Gramsci calls this kind of oppression of a social elite empowered to enforce morality on a population totalitarianism. When true believers in a moral ideology use all their elite status to enforce it on their people, the result is despotism and the most crude oppression of all. But this isn’t true totalitarianism, and Gramsci’s insight here justifies giving his ideas a critically important place in the analyses of the Utopias project. 

In the most terrifyingly oppressive type of enforcement of a moral ideology, there are no elites at all. Members of the general populace itself are the true believers in the morality to be enforced. And they control their fellows at all times, in all places. Within communities, among neighbours, inside families, the fanatical believers in moral ideologies reach out their tendrils horizontally, without class distinctions, to control every aspect of everyone’s lives. To Be Continued . . . 

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