Thinking About Hypocrisy

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss protests against the practice within some ultra-Orthodox circles of using a live chicken for the ritual of Kaporos.  The ritual precedes Yom Kippur and symbolically transfers the penitent's sins onto a hen or a rooster, who is then slaughtered.  

Protesters have condemned the cruelty involved in the ritual.  In my column, I analyze the nature of the protests and suggest that they could inadvertently serve to enable and encourage hypocrisy and bigotry by those who daily consume the products of animal torture and slaughter -- the flesh (meat) and the lacteal of ovulatory secretions (milk and eggs) of mammals, birds, and fishes -- but who want to believe that they can credibly rail against the animal cruelty of a small minority of the population.

When I was clerking for Justice Blackmun, the case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Haileah came before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Court had recently announced, in Employment Division v. Smith, that Native American users of peyote for religious riturals had no First Amendment right to religious accommodations from the government in the form of exemption from otherwise generally applicable drug laws (but see a different perspective in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores).  The Court explained in Smith that the Free Exercise of religion protects members of a religious group only from discrimination against them on the basis of religion but not from the adverse impact of a generally applicable law.  

In Church of Lukumi, practitioners of Santeria claimed that a Hialeah, Florida, city ordinance that prohibited animal sacrifice violated their Free Exercise rights because the city, which claimed to be addressing animal cruelty through its ordinance, in fact singled out the petitioners for their religious practice while leaving alone and even affirmatively endorsing other forms of animal cruelty by the general population.  The petitioners prevailed, and the Supreme Court struck down the Hialeah ordinance.

At the time this case came before the Court, I inferred from the structure of the Florida law under consideration that the people of the City of Hialeah were deliberately targeting members of the Santeria faith rather than sincerely trying to protect animals from harm.  After all, if Floridians were really concerned about violence against animals, they would not have entrenched a state constitutional right to hunt and would also stop the daily cruelty of animal farming more generally.  The professed concern about animals was, to my mind, therefore bogus.

Looking back on the Hialeah ordinance now, however, I think I might have partially misjudged the people of Hialeah.  They did, of course, evidence anti-Santeria prejudice, and I would not give them a free pass for that bigotry.  My guess at this point, however, is that the people who created the ordinance in question really did feel repelled by the animal cruelty that they witnessed in the streets, when people sacrificed goats, chickens, and other animals for religious reasons. Most of us do not regularly see animals being slaughtered for any reason, so we (or at least those of us who have not already been desensitized to such violence) would likely find such a spectacle extremely disturbing if we did witness it, and we would find it disturbing in large part because animals were suffering tremendously.

What does this tell us, then?  I think the word "hypocrite" captures well what it tells us.  The word literally means one who is insufficiently critical.  If John criticizes a member of the Santeria faith for sacrificing a chicken, but he then turns around and eats a slaughtered chicken or an egg -- and thereby registers his support for the slaughter of more chickens -- John is being insufficiently critical of animal cruelty. In particular, he is criticizing members of the Santeria faith for their animal cruelty while remaining complacent about his own.

I think it is useful to think of this as literal hypocrisy rather than, say, as an instance of being "hypercritical" (or as "hypercrisy").  If it were hypercrisy, it would mean that John does not actually care about animal cruelty (as evidenced by his consumption of animal products) but that he is being critical of the Santeria practitioners for the sake of being critical or exclusively out of some prejudice against an unfamiliar group.  Under the hypercrisy model, the proper stance for John would be to stop criticizing Santeria. Once he did that, he would have achieved the correct equilibrium, in which he criticizes neither himself nor those belonging to an unfamiliar religious group, a kind of "homeostacrisy."

On a hypocrisy approach, however, we would acknowledge that what happens to the animals during animal sacrifice is terribly wrong but that we must take a closer look at our own conduct toward animals and stop hurting them ourselves rather than exclusively condemning others for their wrongdoing. Invalidating the Hialeah ordinance as hypocritical, then, occurs because the ordinance does too little, not because it does too much (although either under- or over-inclusiveness makes a law suspect under an equality analysis).  

To give a different example, consider the period after Michael Vick was first charged with cruelty for what he did to the dogs in his custody.  People were extremely angry at him, and quite a few people who lived in my neighborhood in NYC at the time approached me with petitions aimed at condemning Vick and urging harsh treatment of him by the criminal justice system.  

Thinking back, I have no doubt at all that the people expressing anger and circulating petitions were honestly and sincerely horrified by the cruelty that Michael Vick had perpetrated against his dogs.  It would be false to say that these people were just looking for an excuse to criticize Michael Vick.  

Yet most of the people circulating petitions and declaring their outrage were simultaneously consuming animal flesh and secretions and thereby participating in violence just as great against animals just as vulnerable and capable of suffering as Michael Vick's dogs.  Such people were accordingly engaged in hypocrisy (for failing to take notice of their own misconduct) rather than hypercrisy (for condemning Vick's animal cruelty at all). 

The remedy for hypocrisy is to look in the mirror and take in the fact that one is doing exactly the sort of thing that one is condemning another person or group for doing.  This is what I found myself taking in when I had stopped consuming mammals but had continued to consume birds, when I stopped consuming birds but continued consuming aquatic animals, and finally, when I realized that being a lacto-ovo vegetarian implicated me in horrific violence against mother cows, baby calves, hens, and roosters.  

Returning to the issue that began this post, I believe that most of the people condemning the practice of using chickens for Kaporos are honestly and truly upset to see the suffering that the ritual inflicts on innocent birds. They are accordingly not hypercritical (or, to use my new word, "hypercrites"), as they have in fact identified something that is morally reprehensible to condemn.

But if they do not simultaneously condemn -- or at the very least stop engaging in -- the violence of animal agriculture, then they are hypocrites, people who are insufficiently critical of misconduct that they most clearly see when they are not personally invested in perpetuating it.  Hypocrites would do best to expand their critique to their own behavior, particularly at a time of year associated with atonement and renewal.  Now would be a most auspicious time for people to undertake the removal of animal products -- the wages of animal torture and slaughter -- from their lives.  If we want a world in which others refrain from violence, committing to becoming vegan is really the least we can do.