Sincerity, Hypocrisy, and Mark Sanford

Sincerity, Hypocrisy, and Mark Sanford June 30, 2009

I loathe witch hunts over people’s personal lives.  What interests me are some observations on sincerity and hypocrisy which seem apparent to me watching the bizarrely unself-aware and narcissistic way that Sanford has acted as though he is a character in the Bible or some other morality tale in which he is the star.

I don’t really blame him but just make a few observations on the lessons for all of us.  As Jonathan Haidt says repeatedly (including in the link I posted, just before this post, to a radio show in which he appears and makes this point) we live our lives acting and then becoming the defense attorney to come up with reasons after the fact to explain why we acted as we did.  And of course, this is an old Nietzschean and Freudian point, likely made by plenty of others as well.

It is interesting in this case to see how in a strange way Sanford’s biblicizing of everything indicates, at least to me, that he genuinely does believe in the biblical narratives—or at least in the contemporary Evangelical constructions of them and of sin and of redemption, etc.  And as narcissistic as anyone from the outside can see that he is being—comparing himself to King David, rationalizing that his children will learn more if he can be a redemption story than a scandal-ousted governor, declaring that his affair was a “forbidden” “tragic” “love story”—all of this is intricately compatible with a genuine belief in and appropriation of his religious narratives.

I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s simply not a neat line between people’s real thoughts and their actions.  The hypocrite in practice is not someone who is proved to not really believe what he says which his actions contradict.  Maybe in some cases that’s the way it goes.  But most real people, I would guess, are not nearly self-aware enough for that.

And the sheer clumsy, hole-digging character of Sanford’s attempts to romanticize himself and justify his refusal to take responsibility takes a strikingly sincere form.  If he had cunning wits about him he would stop digging and start shamelessly grovelling—however disingenuously.  But I think this is really the way he thinks.

I don’t say all this to pick up a pitchfork against him since I mistrust the moralistic knee jerk reaction to tar and feather people for being as flawed as we all are.  But the nature of our narcissisms, our processes of constructing narratives to serve them, and the intersection between sincerity, narcissism, and hypocrisy deserve some real scrutiny beyond moral scorn and simplistic Manichean assumptions that sincerity and hypocrisy are polar opposites.  They may be conceptually, but I suspect that in the boarding house of the psyche, sincerity and hypocrisy spend the most time playing cards together and might even be sleeping with each other.

Here’re quotes from Sanford’s Twitter account and interspersed with brief remarks from Lucy Morrow Caldwell at the National Review which are less sympathetic than mine.

Immediately after all this unfolded last week I had thought I would resign — as I believe in the military model of leadership and when trust of any form is broken one lays down the sword. A long list of close friends have suggested otherwise – that for God to really work in my life I shouldn’t be getting off so lightly. While it would be personally easier to exit stage left, their point has been that my larger sin was the sin of pride. They contended that in many instances I may well have held the right position on limited government, spending or taxes — but that if my spirit wasn’t right in the presentation of those ideas to people in the General Assembly, or elsewhere, I could elicit the response that I had at many times indeed gotten from other state leaders.

In other words, he’s willing to stay on, against his own impulses, because he believes it’s God’s way of punishing him for committing adultery? Either Sanford’s speechwriters are having an off-week, or this man has actually deluded himself into believing that the governorship is more about Mark Sanford’s personal life than about the interests of South Carolina voters.

The drivel actually gets worse, as Sanford goes on to appoint himself reformed poster boy for family values:

Accordingly, [these friends] suggested that there was a very different life script that would be lived and learned by our boys, and thousands like them, if this story simply ended with scandal and then the end of office — versus a fall from grace and then renewal and rebuilding and growth in its aftermath.
How lucky for the thousands of Americans who will benefit from Sanford’s brave decision to remain governor.

I’ll have more thoughts on the nature of hypocrisy in future posts, sooner or later.

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