Popular culture has a tendency to reduce to sanctimoniousness anyone who expresses disgust or outrage at the sexual scandals of public officials. Such was the reaction to people who refused to grant summary forgiveness to former President Bill Clinton after he admitted to improprieties with Monica Lewinsky.
Today, the bar for moral indignation has fallen even lower. At least this much can be said for Clinton’s supporters: By glossing over his offenses, they averted a prolonged constitutional crisis that may have proceeded to anarchy.
However, when the person in question is of no national significance whatsoever, like a sports figure or a celebrity, the danger of a moral crisis is lessened, and a policy of easy forgiveness begins to resemble moral weakness.
This is how I would classify the public’s response to Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs. The seriatim disclosure of those affairs on national television aroused their fair share of shock and awe. However, only a small portion of that was a reaction to the moral grotesqueries that were exposed.
Instead, the media coverage, which is designed to pander to the public’s interest, weighed heavily in favor of the sensational aspects of the story, including the amount of money Woods stands to lose as well as a general discussion on sex addiction.
While Woods is still an object of derision, the greater scandal here lies in the moral abdication displayed by America’s tropism toward iconoclasm, and particularly iconoclastic sex ““ a process unleashed by the liberal revolution of the 1960s.
One consequence of our immersion in this revolution is an altered view of sex ““ a view that is accepted almost unquestioningly at academic institutions like our own.
Our standard interpretation of sex as facilitating an emotional connection has been tossed out in favor of a purely utilitarian definition: sex as the manipulation of body parts, leading (hopefully) to a climax of pleasure.
Two of the basic assumptions emanating from these views are that (1) sex is a natural phenomenon, and (2) prurient and “chaste” forms of sex exist in the same pool, and therefore should not be separated out into various gradations of decency.
Accepting the first of these principles requires us to conclude that Woods’ behavior, while perhaps not for everyone, was a natural projection of his body ““ like an arm or a foot ““ that nobody (including he) should attempt to change.
From the second principle, we are asked to assume that the sexual acts allegedly performed by Woods are not inherently better or worse than any other form of sexual contact ““ be it bestiality or a couple’s first night together in their marital bed.
This flattening of sex leaves only the question of consent, which can become very touchy when we consider the nature of the participants. For example, is it consensual when a young girl, intimidated by the power of a male suitor, gives herself over to him in the belief that failing to do so would result in certain repercussions?
The public has shown a willingness to ignore these nuances when they are likely to lead to a long process of trial and punishment. Clinton’s impeachment hearings, for instance, had a soporific effect on the public, even when the issue being decided had the widest implications for the country.
His subsequent journey out of exile, which could not have been smoother, did nothing if not to mollify people’s fears about exacting consequences for loose behavior.
While that scandal dwarfs the current one in significance, there seems to be the same sort of uneasiness about retributory justice. Hence, it appears that the public will allow Tiger Woods to return to golf without facing strict punishment of the kind faced by all other men who break their conjugal vows.
There has been a substantial blowback from this culture of permissiveness. Casual observers will have discerned a dramatic surge in both the number and severity of public scandals during the last decade (the period since Clinton left office).
This trend is punctuated by the case of Woods, but one does not have to look far for other examples of scandal, such as John Edwards or Kobe Bryant.
It is a mistaken sense of forgiveness that drives this recidivism. For decades, Americans have clung to the assumption that it is wrong to judge at all. This is a crude interpretation of the biblical concept of turning the other cheek, which presupposes that the person is repentant.
By granting forgiveness before the person has shown signs of penance, as many did for Woods, society promotes acceptance of the behavior in question rather than eradicating it.
If this trend goes unchecked ““ and there have been no recent attempts to address it ““ traditional lines will become blurred. It is not a far step to assume that in the future “Tiger did it” will constitute a valid excuse for cheating on one’s wife, as many people have undoubtedly used Clinton’s past as a tool for self-exculpation.
It is easy to see how this could happen at a place like UCLA, where many view success as an end in itself. When people who violate the most basic standards of propriety are let back into society almost as a matter of course, we are likely to lose our sense of what is acceptable and what is not.
Let us then take a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs … Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/ And ““ which is more ““ you’ll be a Man, my son!”