In Act 3 of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, Queen Gertrude speaks one of the most enduring lines from the play: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Although our colloquial use of this quote is most often used to imply denial, that particular interpretation actually post-dates the Elizabethan era. What Shakespeare meant was more akin to “vow” or “declare solemnly”; Queen Gertrude believes the player in the scene affirms something so strongly as to lose credibility. The strength and passion of her declarations distract from the truth. We find copious examples of similar protestations in our own lives.
A friend recently confided in me that when her father suddenly passed away several months ago, the family discovered he’d been a longtime compulsive gambler who left his wife in colossal debt. Although crushed by her dad’s death and the terrible financial predicament of her mom, the most devastating aspect was her father’s inability to be honest with them. Whenever confronted, her dad had explicitly promised (vowed) that all was good and right. This, she said, felt like the worst insult; her dad held honesty above all other virtues. He insisted that his children be entirely truthful all the while constructing his elaborate false façade.
When research psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno set out to deconstruct moral hypocrisy, they confirmed that conventional wisdom is spot-on: We judge others more harshly for the same moral transgressions that we ourselves commit. We are also more forgiving of transgressions by our friends than we are of folks who are not part of our in-group. Valdesolo and DeSteno also discovered that although we are innately “intuitive moral beings”, when given ample time to think and construct more complex arguments, we develop a narrative to explain why what we did wasn’t so bad after all.
There is a steady drip of moral hypocrisy from our elected officials: From Newt Gingrich railing against President Clinton’s sexual peccadillos while having a second adulterous affair himself, to former U.S. Senator Larry Craig—an outspoken anti-gay politician—being arrested for cruising men in a public bathroom in the Minneapolis Airport. Craig is one of over a dozen anti-gay GOP officials who have been caught in similarly awkward positions, although internet buzz suggests that Craig has received the most notoriety; the bathroom is now a tourist spot for those passing through the Minneapolis hub. People snap pictures, perhaps to remind themselves to be wary of moral hypocrisy.
Comedian Bill Cosby has long used his notoriety to openly denounce what he viewed as the moral failings of the African American community. A May 2008 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Atlantic” subtitled “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism” draws a line from Booker T. Washington’s “talented tenth” paradigm to Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March to Cosby’s own frank exhortations to young black men to abandon gangsta rap adoration, pull up their sagging pants and stop having babies out of wedlock.
But there have long been murmurings about Cosby’s moral failings and hypocrisy among black fans, according to Al Sanders, writing for “Crosscut” in Seattle. Sanders recounts comments he’d heard for decades in his local barbershop whenever the topic of Cosby and ‘personal responsibility’ came up: How can a man who has slept with so many women start lecturing us about how we behave? Word on the street was that Cosby had been paying off women for years to make sordid stories disappear.
As commentators across the nation ponder how Cosby could have gotten away with such abhorrent, abusive behavior for so long, I find myself wondering why we all didn’t see the red flags sooner. His moral compass malfunctioned in direct proportion to his judgment of others. Perhaps we all bear some responsibility. Whenever we deify someone—and accept strident condescension— we cripple the ability to self-reflect and admit transgressions.