WHEN DOES ERRANT BEHAVIOUR MERIT PUBLIC ATTENTION?
Vindictive media make it harder to make a true moral audit of personal wrongdoing and reinforce sometimes spurious distinctions between the public and the private.
A series of alleged high profile sexual misdemeanours in 2011 has got the media buzzing with observations about the public’s right to know and the apparent sense of entitlement of famous, rich and powerful men to get what they want. Talk of the public’s right to know is always at risk of descending into the shallow hypocrisy of a lust for gossip. This is why the public interest argument is advanced, but this is in danger of being so loosely interpreted as to be devoid of meaning. We are struggling for an ethic to guide us in these questions.
A rigid division between public and private is often argued on the basis that what is conducted in private is of no concern to the public world. Such distinctions cannot universally be maintained and depend on each situation. The affair of a top footballer, for instance, is deemed to have less significance publicly than the affair of a senior banker on the basis that the latter’s performance in the use of other people’s money may have been influenced by an affair at work and thus usefully be investigated. Yet the top footballer’s indiscretion may have wide impact because sports stars are admired by children. Those who claim there is no moral influence by Premier League footballers on children would do well to sustain their case if they spent any time watching the way children behave in competitive matches at the weekend.
God views human conduct without this kind of artificial divide between public and private. Instead he invites us to look at the extent to which human relationships have been ruptured by sin. We may prefer to think our indiscretions do not have public implications – especially on how we perform our duties – but this may not be how others view our actions. The hurt caused by disloyalty does not respect largely imaginary boundaries. It is a fallacy to suggest we can put relationships into rigid compartments. There is a dynamism to these relationships which flows as easily across the boundaries we create as the tide sweeping in and out. Perhaps the ethic we are searching for is best described as an audit of how extensively relationships have been damaged. Whether a failing is broadcast or a person should resign – among other options - thus flows from the extent to which other human beings have been hurt.
Problems nevertheless emerge in how such audits are conducted. Hierarchies are informed by cultures which may be seriously flawed. The French political elite give the impression that they are remarkably tolerant of the failings of their class, to the detriment of their victims. The British tabloid press, by contrast, is vindictive in its pursuit of moral failure. Neither group, among others which could be named, judges errant behaviour with anything like the discipline, grace and humility that God calls us to show. Media culture in particular is unsparing and unforgiving. The dynamic of confession, repentance, forgiveness and restoration opens up possibilities for those who have fallen and in this we can thank God for the cross. In leaving God out of the story, the narrative becomes cruel and punitive. The awareness that any one of us could fail but that God is generous in his response to those who turn to him should prevent us from hurling the first stone (though frequently it doesn’t). As St. Paul said: ‘if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:12)
The divide between private and public is rigidly enforced today because the standards governing each are significantly different. The public world judges with ever closer attention the performance of its subjects while conversely a marked permissiveness oversees private conduct. Is it any wonder that people are so keen to keep judgment within the private sphere? Yet in permitting such a divide we lack the spiritual integrity God is looking for in approaching the offender and their victims. Among the irresistible clamour which surrounds the kind of individual wrongdoing that everyone gets to hear about, we should ask ourselves some careful questions. Who was hurt and how extensively are two such from which the trickier judgments that each case compels can be forged.
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