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Deceit: The Uses of Transparency and Concealment

Organizing Fellow: Mlada Bukovansky (Government)

“Wouldn’t the social fabric come undone
If we were wholly frank with everyone?”

The use of language to deceive appears to be a universal human trait.2 As Molière suggests, a world of absolute transparency and frankness would probably be unbearable. People find many reasons to conceal truth. Some of those reasons might be considered legitimate while others not, and judgments about the legitimacy of any particular deceit often are themselves contestable. From the twisting of intelligence reports to reach a politically-motivated conclusion, to parental narratives denying past recreational drug use when counseling their children, to the massaging of data in a scientific paper for the purposes of communicating an ethically desirable thesis about, say, global warming -- deceit, hypocrisy, and concealment are widespread social practices that can provide a vehicle by which we can learn a great deal about ourselves as human beings.

Such practices have always been central concerns in the realm of literature and poetry, and provide a rich and varied source of materials for critical consideration. Apart from moral condemnation, the matter of deceit has been perhaps less of a focus for examination across the social and natural sciences, and for this reason may offer particularly ripe intellectual fruit for our picking. This project will seek to explore the manifold ways in which the practices of deceit both sustain and undermine human relationships and social order.

My own work focuses on hypocrisy, a form of deceit which the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines as the “assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, esp. in respect of religious life or beliefs; hence in a general sense, dissimulation, pretence, sham.” I am particularly interested in how deceit complicates our understanding of norms and values in social life, and how hypocrisy is used to paper over incommensurate values and interests. For example, I am currently exploring the impact of hypocrisy on international norms and institutions, with a focus on trade liberalization negotiations within the World Trade Organization (WTO). Hypocrisy and deceit tend to be routine in the international milieu; they are essential to diplomacy because without them it would often be impossible for states with incommensurate interests and values to come to agreement. In the WTO, wealthy countries push weaker states to liberalize their markets while they themselves retain institutionalized modes of protection in key sectors such as agriculture. This form of hypocrisy appears to be a prerogative of power. In turn, poor countries demand agricultural liberalization by the rich as a precondition for negotiating further liberalization, while simultaneously advocating exceptions for themselves. This is yet another form of hypocrisy, and does not appear to prevent the poorer countries from publicly shaming the rich by leveling accusations of hypocrisy against them.

Such hypocritical practices have become a focal point of contestation within and resistance to the WTO, revealing the interplay and negotiation of diverse and perhaps incommensurate values such as market openness, protection of rural landscapes and ecosystems, and economic development.

This project will bring together a diverse group of scholars to explore the tensions between deceit and truthfulness, between concealment and transparency, in a variety of contexts. While each Fellow will bring to the group some case or set of problems that have been generated within their particular discipline, the collaborative framework will afford an opportunity to see beyond disciplinary horizons. That is, nested within each case study are broader philosophical, ethical, cultural and linguistic questions that are evoked by the human practice of deception. How has the play of deceit and revelation been represented in art and literature? How have such issues been manifested in different historical contexts? How do cultures handle deceitful practices differently, and how do they shape intercultural relations in their interaction? To what extent may new technologies be creating more perfect forms of deceit (such as the practice of identity theft or the role of the internet in human interactions) or how technologies of surveillance might make concealment more difficult (such as software designed to catch plagiarists)?

1 Molière, The Misanthrope, quoted in Judith N. Shklar “Let Us Not Be Hypocritical,” in Ordinary Vices (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 52.
2 Dan Brown, Human Universals (1991), cited in Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature (NY: Viking, 2002), appendix.




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