7 Questions with Raphi Sassower, author of “The Specter of Hypocrisy”

Raphi Sassower
Raphi Sassower is a professor of philosophy at UCCS.

Raphi Sassower, professor of philosophy at UCCS, teaches, researches and writes on philosophy of the social sciences and political economy, and is a leading contributor to the field of postmodern technoscience.

Most recently, Sassower authored “The Specter of Hypocrisy: Testing the Limits of Moral Discourse,” published in 2020 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Sassower answered seven questions on the new book, a deep exploration of the concept of hypocrisy. It examines hypocritical behavior as a means of protecting oneself in hostile situations, a useful tool with which to build trust and communities, a form of chameleonism to meet social expectations and more.

1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

This book examines the concept of hypocrisy for its strategic potential: can it be used as a means of personal protection and social cohesion?

Given the contemporary context of post-truth, where “fake news” and “hypocrisy” are labels for anything we despise, this book examines more carefully degrees or kinds of hypocrisy. The historical nod to both the Greek etymology of masks worn on the theater stage and the Hebrew etymology of the color adjustment of chameleons to their environment unravels some preconceptions about hypocrisy. It’s much easier to “unmask” a hypocrite than to identify the “true” color of a chameleon.

Additionally, claims about the discrepancy between one’s intentions and conduct are problematic if the uniformity of the mind is questioned. The “modular mind,” for example, challenges inconsistencies in personal conduct, because each part works independently from all others (in this neuropsychic evolutionary model).

Finally, different contexts warrant different responses; when circumstances change, so must one’s conduct. When used among friends, the charge of hypocrisy is a useful tool with which to build trust and enhance solidarity.

2. How did you get the idea for your project?

After the election of President Trump, media outlets increased the use of the term “hypocrisy.” It seemed to me that the term was diluted, losing over the past four years its stinging rebuke for unbecoming behavior, especially for the office of the presidency. It seemed that hypocrisy was expected to do some heavy lifting without sufficient critical training or tools. A more nuanced approach to the power of this label was in order, a philosophical analysis which was historically and etymologically informed. The more I read about hypocrisy and its moral and political associations, the more interested I became in transcending the standard binary of approval and condemnation.

3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process? 

Like any research project that takes years, I was tempted to abandon the project on several occasions, thinking that everything important was already said and that I had nothing more to add.

But then it occurred to me that more could be explored about the paradoxical position that hypocritical conduct assumes in different contexts, offering needed protection from persecution and discrimination, what some have called “victim hypocrisy,” a justified way of shielding oneself from harm. Simply dismissing actions and people with the slur of hypocrisy could miss the nuances the term deserves, especially when code switching and passing are strategic moves essential for survival in hostile (social and political) environments.

4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?      

Among the many areas explored in this book, I was struck by social psychologists and psychoanalysts who have argued against the philosophical prejudice that individuals have a uniform cognitive apparatus with which they should be making consistent choices. The ego that is informed as much by its unconscious as by feedback loops from one’s environment or the “modular” mind that segments different brain activities should not be expected to respond consistently to external stimuli.

I was also moved by reading accounts of discriminated minorities whose ways of dealing with others utilizes multiple ways of thinking about the consequences of their social interactions. Post-slavery treatment of Black individuals in America extended the horrors and cruelties of enslavement in different forms and provoked the use of some kind of chameleonism to meet social expectations (however misguided they may continue to be).

5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?           

Without comparing myself to him, I will respond the way Pablo Neruda responded to the question about his favorite writing place: anywhere. As long as I have my laptop and books around me, as long as I have access to the Internet and can find obscure manuscripts, the mechanics of writing can function. As I get older, mornings are better for concentration than evening (no more late night drinking and writing).

If books and articles are useful for writing, I read them twice: once with pencil or pen to highlight and comment, the second time transcribing and copying passages into a reference file to be used later. Sometimes new ideas formulate in the process; sometimes what seemed important at first appears irrelevant on second reading. Finally, with a regime of seven-day workweek, even if only a few hours every day, there is a certain continuity that keeps the threads alive for their eventual entanglement or weaving.

6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?

“One of the problems with the reflexive turn to rights language heard in the age of Trump – the right to defy official orders to stay at home or the right to open one’s business regardless of health concerns – is that it has the veneer of principled argumentation but in fact is undertaken in bad faith; it is in this sense hypocritical more often than not.

What is left unsaid is the moral claim for individuality over community, personal tastes and preferences over the health and wellbeing of the community…the charge of hypocrisy is not limited to the loss of sincerity and the integrity of the subject…it is about flagging different modes of constructing, affirming, dismissing, and wrecking social and political relationships.

Perhaps the charge of hypocrisy plays the role of guiding community members to tend to these moral principles however abstract they may seem at first. Without critical analysis, any hope for community building may fade in the face of a cynical acquiescence that hypocrisy is ubiquitous and that we are all hypocrites some of the time.”

7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered? 

The devastation of the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the widening gap of wealth and income inequalities (and the hypocritical narratives established to justify them). The promises of classical capitalism (with their attendant Enlightenment ideals) ring hollow (and/or are hypocritical) in a country whose prosperity has historically depended on legally sanctioned slavery. As I continue to work in the area of political economy, I plan to explore (and therefore revise) my understanding of the structural setting within which our economic ideas and practices come into play.

UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.