Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Public shaming – does it work?

The allegations that the present Pope knew about the sex abuses committed by some members of the Roman Catholic clergy and didn’t do anything about them have created a sense of outrage and moral panic among Catholic believers. It does not give the Church any consolation by continuing to choose between protecting the victims of sex abuse and protecting the Church. In the end, there is only one moral and sensible choice here: to protect both the victims and the Church.

Covering up sexual abuses by the clergy and paying off the victims and their families with hush money will not make the problem go away. Or even prosecuting the offending priests in the courts of law. The Church needs to rethink beyond the issues of crime and punishment, and implement a whole new approach, even if this requires some radical changes in church doctrine and practice.

But what is more distressing than this Church scandal or say, the Tiger Woods’ liaisons with a number of women outside his marriage, is the carnival-like attitude of society to hang in public those who have lost control of their erectile impulses. History is replete with men in high offices who were known for consorting with women other than their wives and nobody in that list was required to make a public admission of his sin. It took an evangelical and good old Christian Jimmy Carter to admit he had looked on a lot of women with lust. During an interview with Playboy, President Carter said, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

This is not to say that it’s ethical and moral, save for the members of the clergy, to allow men to enjoy the company and comfort of women as if they were fruits of victory. As a public act of contrition, perhaps Jimmy Carter best summed up for all men about how difficult it was to struggle evading the snares laid by the Devil.

My point here is why we do not demand such humiliating public show of remorse from men who have done worse. Like George Bush, for his criminal invasion of Iraq. Or, Tony Blair for his collusion with Bush in an illegal war of aggression against Iraq in 2003. Many learned and independent scholars of international law have accused both men of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Regardless of the issue of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, Blair admitted to the BBC and the Chilcot Inquiry that he would have gone to topple Saddam Hussein anyway.

Spain’s celebrated judge Baltazar Garzon, who indicted former Chilean dictator and president Augusto Pinochet, has called for Bush, Blair and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to be prosecuted for the illegal invasion of Iraq. Garzon has condemned Iraq’s invasion as “one of the most sordid and unjustifiable episodes in recent human history.”

How about Wall Street banks for looting their clients, their deposits and the U.S. Treasury? The U.S. government bailed out Wall Street by pumping stimulus money to their coffers, money that was eventually used by these financial institutions to pay bonuses to their managers who were responsible for the economic crisis.

What took it so long for the Securities and Exchange Commission to sue Goldman Sachs? As everyone now knows, the SEC has charged the giant Wall street firm with deliberately misleading investors who participated in mortgage securities trade that was designed to fail.

Or how about chemical companies for poisoning our air and water? Or, pharmaceutical companies for the distribution of drugs inducing the diseases they supposedly prevent?

Perhaps, as human beings, it is easier for us to recycle gossips than to gather the facts. We would rather relish the public hanging of the Pope or Tiger Woods than suffer boredom and monotony in appreciating the clarity of the arguments for the prosecution of Bush and Blair for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. Instead of accepting women as subjects rather than objects the way they are treated in the tabloid press, we salivate in the manner they are regarded like exotic spoils for the victorious and the mighty.

No wonder our society appears upside down.

One of Latin America’s distinguished writers, Eduardo Galeano, wrote:

“The upside-down world rewards in reverse: it scorns honesty, punishes work, prizes lack of scruples, and feeds cannibalism. Its professors slander nature: injustice, they say, is a law of nature. Milton Friedman teaches as about the ‘natural rate of unemployment.’ Studying Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, we learn that blacks remain on the lowest rungs of the social ladder by ‘natural’ law. From John D. Rockefeller’s lectures, we know his success was due to the fact that ‘nature’ rewards the fittest and punishes the useless: more than a century later, the owners of the world continue to believe Charles Darwin wrote his books in their honour.”

The golfing gods have a reason to smile during the recent Masters golf tournament. Tiger was back and is still the king of his sport, despite finishing fourth, a difficult feat considering his absence from competition for quite some time. What really matters to the organizers is that the ratings are higher.

What does Tiger’s public shaming say about us?

To some it would seem refreshing that something as simple as shame could drive the world’s greatest athlete into hiding. Tiger Woods was embarrassed by his behaviour off the golf course, and entering a counselling program didn’t make him a changed man. Only time and how many more majors Tiger finally wins will tell if his public shaming turned out into a good thing.

At a time when many cultural critics have started to pillory America as a modern-day Rome decaying into moral rot, shame has claimed many other big names in American politics recently. Former Senator John Edwards, once a Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was run out of politics by cheating on his wife. Same with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford who fell from grace after his affair was exposed. And there’s former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and Idaho Senator Larry Craig, both shamed out of office.

Is it any solace to us that the concept of shame still matters? Yet, we don’t apply shame’s sharp edge on high crimes and public misdemeanours, such as those committed by leaders of states. Nor are we ever close to taking penance for the predatory nature of capitalist greed that is exemplified by Wall Street.

Public shaming may matter but only in a transitory sense. As a society, we easily forget the trespasses of those we look up to, like superstar athletes or big celebrities. It is also the Church’s tradition of forgiveness that has led itself in sheltering its errant priests through the promise of effective therapy and treatment, and later to reassignment to other parishes. Unfortunately, this often resulted in a whole new group of victims being abused.

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