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Why Boris Johnson May Finally Have Gone Too Far

Boris Johnson, long famed for brushing off accusations of distorting, misleading or outright lying that, far from slowing his rise, seemed to only bolster his image as an incorrigible scamp, suddenly faces potential political death over the very charge to which he had seemed immune.

Even his detractors appear surprised by the speed with which the public and political class have turned against Mr. Johnson, the British prime minister, over charges that he lied about attending parties at his official residence in May 2020 that violated his own government’s lockdown orders.

But even if some of his past fibs may have arguably been more harmful to others around him, this one hits on a particular sensitivity that, psychologists have found, holds special power to enrage.

Moral hypocrisy — behaving badly while simultaneously hectoring the rest of us to do good — evokes a level of anger that neither lying nor wrongdoing bring out on their own, studies have repeatedly found.

Mr. Johnson’s real sin, in this telling, was pushing Britons to go without for the common good, all while his office held events that violated this spirit of shared sacrifice and, by risking viral spread, undermined its effect.

He has acknowledged as much, telling Parliament earlier this month, “I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”

Demonstrators near Parliament protested what many saw as Mr. Johnson’s hypocrisy.Credit…Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As if to underscore the backlash that such transgressions can bring, the tennis star Novak Djokovic simultaneously faces, after his own long record of controversies never quite catching up with him, severe professional damage over accusations that he fabricated or obfuscated in his application for an exemption to Australia’s Covid vaccination requirement.

The incident has become a flashpoint in global debates over vaccine rules. But it has also inspired fierce anger perhaps in part because, like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Djokovic was seeking to benefit from society’s compliance with those rules, which made Australia safe enough to hold the tournament in which he was scheduled to play. And he has done it while bending or breaking those same rules to satisfy his own desires to avoid the vaccine and travel freely.

“Hypocrites employ a double layer of deception,” the neuroscientist Erman Misirlisoy has written in an essay on this behavior’s special power to anger people.

The first layer: urging others around them to follow rules that will benefit them, even if only implicitly by signaling their support for those rules. For example, Mr. Johnson mandating lockdowns that will improve his own safety and political standing. Or Mr. Djokovic telling Australian officials (and, on social media, his fans) that he is upholding the country’s Covid rules so that he might play in its tennis tournament.

The second layer — lying about their own compliance — so offends because it amounts to undercutting the very collective effort they demanded of others.

The writer Hannah Arendt, reflecting on society’s loathing for hypocrisy, called it “the vice of vices.” While terrible crimes might “confront us with the perplexity of radical evil,” she wrote, “only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

As Dr. Misirlisoy wrote,“This is a recipe for hatred when caught out.”

But why?

The reputation of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic was damaged by accusations that he lied about vaccine requirements to enter Australia.  Credit…James Ross/Australian Associated Press, via Associated Press

“When you stop to think about it, it’s actually a psychological puzzle,” Jillian Jordan, a Yale University psychologist who studies this behavior, has said. Everyone occasionally breaks social norms or rules that they otherwise support.

And hypocrisy is hardly unusual among public figures. Athletes project regular-joe public images while living amid yacht-and-helicopter splendor. Mr. Djokovic has emphasized new age togetherness while appearing alongside Serbian ultranationalists.

Neither is dishonesty, on its own, typically met with much surprise. Mr. Johnson has made a joke of his own reputation, saying at a 2018 event, “My strategy is to litter my career with so many decoy mistakes, nobody knows which one to attack.”

But, in acknowledgment that there is something different about people caught pressuring others to uphold standards that they disdain, Mr. Johnson told a reporter that same week that his entire political journey had begun on encountering elitist left-wing students in college and feeling a “sense of outrage at their glutinous hypocrisy.”

The reason, some psychologists believe, is that moral hypocrisy represents, in a way, an attack on the social contract itself.

Since our origin as a species, societies have functioned on an implicit pact: each of us is better off if we all contribute to the common good, even if it means giving some things up.

This only works if everyone trusts that everyone else will go along. If that collapses, so do each individual’s incentive to serve the common good.

People lining up at a walk-in vaccination center at St. Thomas’s hospital in London last month.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In the nomadic tribes where our communal instincts evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, this was a matter of life and death. Without trusting cooperation, the group would perish.

(The pandemic has returned those life-and-death stakes, not to mention imperative of individual sacrifice for the sake of communal welfare, in the form of masks, vaccines and social distancing, which may be why sensitivity to moral hypocrisy suddenly seems so acute. And Britain’s cultural emphasis on fair play, rule-following and sacrifice may be heightening those sensitivities even further.)

Moral hypocrites turn this spirit of shared obligation against the very group it is meant to serve. They hoard the fruits of collective sacrifice for themselves — Mr. Johnson enjoying a party amid lockdown, Mr. Djokovic jetting between societies made safe for him by grueling restrictions — and in ways that undermine the benefits for everyone else.

Understand Boris Johnson’s Recent Troubles


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Turmoil at Downing Street. A garden party that violated lockdown rules has ensnared Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain in a scandal that could threaten his hold on power. Here is what to know:

A contentious gathering. The British news media reported that as many as 100 staff members were invited to a party in the backyard of Mr. Johnson’s residence in May 2020, when officials were instructing people not to socialize to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Internal investigation. A senior civil servant is investigating the matter. Mr. Johnson faces questions about whether he broke lockdown rules and misled Parliament when he claimed last year that he was told there were no Downing Street parties that breached social-distancing rules.

Mr. Johnson’s response. After facing public backlash, Mr. Johnson, who had previously not admitted his presence at the gathering, issued a contrite apology for attending the event. He claimed that he had viewed the party as a work event that did not breach government regulations. He also apologized for attending parties as the queen prepared to bury her husband.

What’s at stake. The crisis has stoked speculations that the political future of Mr. Johnson might be at risk. Though few Conservatives in Parliament have publicly called on him to quit, if the investigation determines that he misled Parliament, it could cost him his job.

And, when their hypocrisy is revealed, it sends a dangerous signal: You, too, can enjoy the benefits of everyone else’s work while only pretending to go along. For the rest of the group, condemning the hypocrite in the strongest possible terms is an act of self-defense, a way to deter others from trying the same.

This may be why, Dr. Jordan found in a series of studies, people will condemn an act of moral hypocrisy far more vociferously than any other sort of transgression her team tested.

The core offense of moral hypocrisy, as well as the outrage it provokes, are captured well in a photo that has, all this month, accompanied news reports and social media discussions of Mr. Johnson’s parties.

Britons’ emphasis on fair play and rule-following may heighten their sensitivity to hypocrites. Credit…Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

It shows Queen Elizabeth II at a funeral ceremony for her husband, Prince Philip, sitting masked and alone in an otherwise empty pew, dutifully obeying the lockdown rules that Mr. Johnson’s staff had violated with a party, it turned out, only the night before.

Mr. Johnson’s parties, of course, hardly caused the pandemic that obligated the queen to practice socially distanced mourning. But the implied affront to her sacrifice, and to the national sacrifice it represented, was too much for some Britons.

“I can only renew my apologies,” Mr. Johnson said, in a highly unusual show of contrition to the monarch, “both to her majesty and to the country.”

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