Finding joy in the hypocrisy of others

Generic image of a man in a meeting with his fingers crossed behind his back

After a US judge held himself in contempt of court for allowing his mobile phone to go off during a hearing, author Charles Nevin wonders whether the decision didn't just deprive ordinary folk of the chance to poke fun.

A dangerous precedent has been set by Raymond Voet, chief (and indeed only) district judge of Ionia County, Michigan.

Judge Voet has long waged a determined campaign against mobile phones that disturb his sessions, ruling their owners in contempt of court, confiscating the phones and charging $25 (£16) for their return.

Then the judge himself accidentally jabbed his own unlocked keypad, releasing an electronic female voice into the charged air during the prosecution's closing address.

Many of his learned peers in the United States and further afield would, I'm sure, have made a well-chosen little legal sally - "I shall have to make a sound judgement on that," or some such - before briskly moving matters on after the fawning laughter had subsided.

Image caption Judge Voet issued himself with a fine

This, however, is not Judge Voet's way. He filled in one of his own contempt forms and fined himself $25. Plentiful plaudits and copious commendations have followed, but I'm not so sure.

Judges, after all, represent authority, and we citizens do like to have a healthy cynicism about those who are so placed above us. Their foibles and frailties allow us a compensating superiority.

It pleases us if judges display a lofty ignorance of the everyday, of Justin Bieber or the price of a pint of milk. I can still remember my unease some years ago when a British judge demonstrated an intimate knowledge of north London bus routes, matched by my delight when another one mistook his waiting taxi driver for a door-stepping journalist and kicked him.

How, too, are we to survive in this richly unfair world if we are to be robbed of the satisfaction of observing and detecting the hypocrisy of the high and the mighty?

What if they all behaved with the nobility of Judge Voet? Where would be the grim satisfaction in that? How much more difficult would parenting become if we were unable to fall back on that all-purpose appeal to a higher power: "Do as I say, not as I do"?

Hypocrisy might be, as La Rochefoucauld had it, the tribute vice pays to virtue, but it is also by far the most entertaining vice for the rest of us, if not for the practitioner.

Think of fiction's best drawn, most entertaining characters - Chaucer's Pardoner, Shakespeare's Iago, every third man and woman in Jane Austen, every other man and woman in Dickens - and the H-word is there, satisfyingly to be unmasked.

The nonpareil of charming hypocrisy, though, would be the French police chief in Casablanca, Captain Renault - Claude Rains' fox with a heart of gold - who is forced by the Germans to close Rick's bar and casino, announcing: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

This masterful performance is then interrupted by a croupier offering him his winnings.

Life without such ill-concealed deceptions and effrontery would be dull indeed.

Henry Digby, the writer, recalled a visit by Samuel Johnson to Digby's great aunts, who congratulated the great man on omitting all unsavoury words from his newly published Dictionary. "What! My dears!" replied Johnson. "Then you have been looking for them?"

Thomas Carlyle once very lengthily harangued a dinner gathering on the merits of silence. There is also the advice from that legendary leader of a luxurious lifestyle, Orson Welles, to a creditor who asked him how he was to survive until Welles paid him the money due. "Live simply," suggested Welles.

But it would be irresponsible to give the impression that Judge Voet's act stands entirely alone in the annals of the law. Charondas, a renowned lawgiver in ancient Sicily, entered the public assembly wearing a sword. When it was pointed out to him that this violated a law he himself had introduced, he immediately fell on it and died, which, you will concede, rather trumps $25.

Mind you, the story is also told of Zaleucus of Locris and Diocles of Syracuse, so unless two of them were exceptionally forgetful, there might be some dissembling going on here, even hypocrisy.

Charles Nevin is a journalist, humorist and author.

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