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Sunday, June 20, 2010

On the Nature of Praise

I've been thinking a lot lately about praise.  As humans, most of us like to be praised.  It makes us feel good and, at times, a bit superior since we know we did something well.  Praise is definitely a positive and constructive device, but I had a peculiar thought on the exact nature of praise.

We recieve praise for all sorts of things.  Whether it is good grades, great accomplishments, or simply behaving right.  It is this last point, behaving right, that has provoked thoughts.  We get praised for doing the right thing, but what exactly gives the person who praises us the authority to do so?  For example (and lack of a better example at that), say this girl tells her friend that she is really proud of her friend for not drinking and being a good role model.  However, the person who gives the praise has been drunk on a number of occasions.  The friend who doesn't drink feels good about being praised, but what gives the friend who does drink from time to time the right to say she's proud?  It seems hypocritical to me.  This example is not great, but in better ones the contradiction is more obvious.  In an exaggerated sense, it seems like a bank robber is praising a law-abiding citizen for not robbing banks.  Perhaps this makes more sense in my mind, but the purpose of this blog is to communicate my thoughts to others.

Now, to make things more complicated, when does that person who does do the wrong thing find themselves in the right position to praise the person who does nothing wrong? Say the girl who drinks stopped for over a year.  Does she now have the authority to praise her friend since she has stopped for so long, or are her "praising abilities" marred from her previous actions?  Does an elderly senator who lied and scandalized early in his career have the right to praise the honorable qualities in a new, young politician?  Does a person who was openly racist when they were younger have the right to praise the passing of a bill supporting equal rights?  Support is always good, mind you.  Having the support of people who in the past did wrongdoings makes the position stronger.  However, where is the line between support and hypocritical praise?  Perhaps if the racist spent time in jail or got in trouble in some other way, his debt to society was paid and he has all the right to praise without hypocrisy.  Yet, what if he never got in trouble?  Is there hypocrisy in his praise?  To me, the matter gets complicated.  Perhaps people take the solid position of "well, people can change for the better," but I am sure there are those out there who would want the once-corrupted senator to stay away from the new politician.

Of course, this does not mean to be pretentious about matters, either.  For example, if someone who typically receives B's in school congratulates a typically-A student for getting a high grde, there is nothing wrong and no hypocrisy.  To me, this is support that is productive, as the A student will hopefully praise the B student as well.

Perhaps I have this all wrong, and people, no matter what they have done or do, are free to praise whomever they want with no second thoughts.  Comments?


  1. I don't think hypocrisy applies to the situations where people who did wrongdoings in the past are praising people who haven't done anything wrong. If anything these hypocrites are just praising an innocent soul to recognize that indeed he/she is going down the right path and not making decisions that will make them turn out like him/her in the future (the hypocrite). Let's use your example, what exactly is so wrong about someone who habitually drinks to praise someone for not drinking? How is that hypocritical? Who cares about the drinker, let's give praise to people who do the right thing. The more praise one receives, the more likely they are going to stay on the right track.

  2. That makes a lot of sense, keeping people on the right track regardless. Of course, it would be better all around, in my opinion, if the praiser was also on the right path and had been there - it makes the praise more powerful.