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November 26, 2008updated 01 Feb 2016 10:44am

Prententious, Moi?

By Spear's

Let’s face it, we’re all fakers, at least some of the time. So go easy on the poseurs and the wannabes they’re only human, says Vanessa Neumann

Let’s face it, we’re all fakers, at least some of the time. So go easy on the poseurs and the wannabes — they’re only human, says Vanessa Neumann

‘Hypocrites!’ shouted Alice, railing against the people she thought were her friends. She was a foreigner and they had let her into their aristocratic community with much jolly fanfare before freezing her out. Alice had betrayed a confidence, a confidence others in that tight group had betrayed among each other — but her crime was different, for she had revealed the confidence to an outsider. And outside is just where Alice found herself when her invitations were rescinded.

It’s an oft-repeated scene, but one that never gets any more palatable, as both sides accuse each other of hypocrisy: the tight-knit group for turning so quickly and so savagely, for punishing what they themselves do; and the newcomer for behaving as a friend yet not abiding by the rules. But hypocrisy can take many guises.

‘Hypocrite’ was exactly what I thought when I read a few pages of a memoir by a hack who used to be a friend but then I sued (successfully) last year. The memoir, now a Hollywood movie, had layer upon layer of hypocrisy. First, he pretended to loathe celebrity, which in fact he spent his entire life chasing.

Then, his mock self-deprecating tone failed to conceal his relentless need for self-aggrandisement. Like those Russian dolls, he packaged conceit within conceit: while he pretended to mock his efforts to package himself as something he was not, he continued to present himself as more important than he was, making up stories if he needed to. It enraged me.

But age mellows all passions, I had been told, and it’s true — particularly rage. As we grow older, rage morphs gently into disappointment and we eventually learn to forgive. Even hypocrisy is forgivable, if understood in context. For circumstances eventually make hypocrites of us all.

Yet we nevertheless find it so galling: people pretending to be who they are not, pretending to be more virtuous, pretending to have better judgment or better breeding. It is their attempt to separate themselves from one (less desirable) group and associate themselves with another, more powerful or more respected social group. Hypocrites don disorienting camouflage that makes their attacks surprising, like a wild beast leaping out of the foliage.

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But this is the wrong way to look at it. Hypocrisy comes from the Greek hypokrisis, meaning play-acting, and hypocrites, meaning a stage actor. An actor, after all, has to play to his audience. So when the audience changes, so does the script.

And we’re certainly getting our fill of hypocrisy every night streaming in through our televisions, as politicians everywhere (particularly in America) struggle with the monster of financial collapse and a presidential election; as they prance and preen, each telling us all the ways they are like us, why we belong together, why we should vote them in and, by consequence, the others out — much as the Ancient Athenians voted citizens out of the city with their pottery ostrakon, ostracising them from civil society.

It was the fear of ostracism that drove my Caracas society peers to develop two modes of behaviour, one at home and one abroad. While at boarding school or university in New York or Boston, Caracas society girls would have a blast at nightclubs and raves, experimenting with sex and drugs. Then on school holidays they’d return home and go on dates with men they might marry, chaperoned by a brother or sister who would snitch on them.

They had to protect their (non-existent) virginities — or at least be seen to, in order to protect their reputations. They have a saying for this, in fact: todos menos el novio (everyone but the boyfriend). And what would you expect in a macho culture rife with a Madonna-whore complex? As a woman, if you weren’t in the former category you could only be in the latter, and would be called loca (crazy).

But then the women understood that men, too, fall into categories: men you marry, men you shag, and men (the waiter, the ski or tennis instructor) you deny ever having shagged. If you want to marry, you must succumb to market forces and play by the rules of your social clique.

This is exactly what happened to Alice: she misread the forces of her cliquey market. The members of the powerful and exclusive clique to which she sought to belong felt obliged to behave as was expected of them when she broke their rules: they exercised their power and excluded her.

So spare a little sympathy when you next see a hypocrite or become one yourself, for we are all actors in a play, catering to an audience, fearing that our masks may slip and we’ll be ridiculed or, worse, excluded. For until we can all come clean and say, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ve been there, too,’ we’ll continue to behave as simple herd animals fighting for our places in the pack.

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