Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why We Love Scandal

Every once in a while a magazine will run an article proclaiming that Freud is dead. And then, after a decent interval, another magazine will publish an important article declaring that Freud is alive and well and living on the Upper West Side.

And you thought that psychoanalysis had something to do with science.

Anyway, today's topic is scandal, or better, our attraction to it, our thrill at watching it, our joy at commenting on it, our delight in gossiping about it. What's so great about scandal?

So asks Laura Kipnis in her new book: How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior. Jezebel has an excerpt here.

I am not so sure that we all aspire to become scandals or that we should. Nor am I sure that we ought to make scandal a staple of our mental diets. An occasional scandal is well and good, but constant exposure might make us into voyeurs.

If people who watch scandals are exercising their moral muscles and affirming community values, then people who watch too many of them will care less about living up to community values and more about emulating those whose lives have become infused with scandal.

As it happens, Kipnis herself admits to a voyeuristic thrill, a frisson, in watching a scandal unfold. Obviously, this assumes that our interest in scandal resembles a sexual perversion or even an addiction.

If so, it does not feel like a worthy expense of our psychological capital. Unless, of course, you can write a book about it.

Whether you are observer or voyeur, you are certainly an interested party when you tune in to a scandal. You interest and attention, Kipnis notes, keeps the scandal alive, keeps the media looking for new salacious details, and keeps your attention riveted too long and too intently.

Scandals need an audience. To the extent that we gather around the water cooler to share our insights, we are participants in the scandal.

Here I would offer a caveat. Our gathering around a scandal does not necessarily make us into partners in crime or co-conspirators. Why not think of us as getting together to assert the values that our community holds dear.

Admittedly, Freud taught us to think the worst of ourselves and others. Some people, I daresay, have learned the lesson a bit too well.

If those whose scandal driven lives attract our atention are publicly shamed and humiliated, as Kipnis suggests, then we are not, almost by definition, really spectators at their drama. We are trying to turn our eyes away from their drama and return to our own lives.

So I would say.

A Freudian like Kipnis draws a different conclusion: "Scandals are... there to remind us of that smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core which periodically breaks loose and throws everything into havoc, leading to grisly forms of ritual humiliation and social ignominy...."

No good Freudian would use the phrase, "smidge of ungovernability" as anything but irony. Kipnis is defining  scandal as the public display of our basic truth, our real human nature, the one that we must keep hidden and covered up to function in human society.

If this is true, people react badly to those who are caught up in scandal because they are angered by situations that remind them of where they came from, where they are going, and what their truth is. We condemn others because we cannot accept that we would want to do what they are doing. It's all about denial.

Anyway, Kipnis expresses her definition of scandal well here: "Someone decides to act out his weird psychodramas and tangled furtive longings on a nationwide scale, playing our his deepest, most lurid impulses, flamboyantly detonating his life-- it's like free public theater."

At least we are not in the world of smidges any more. Hopefully, we all do not delight in scandal as much as Kipnis does. There is something slightly unnerving about her evident joy at scandal.

Kipnis raises several interesting questions here. First, and perhaps the most important: whether or not the subjects of major scandals are choosing to make themselves into public spectacles.

Do you accept unthinkingly that these people choose to act out their darkest unconscious desires on the public stage?

Eliot Spitzer frequented prostitutes because he believed that he could buy discretion with monetary compensation. If most athletes have occasional dalliances while on the road, just as most rock stars do, perhaps Tiger Woods believed that his paramours, many of whom were sex workers, would remain silent... in exchange for proper compensation.

It may be the case that the media is more than happy, for its own purposes, to assume that these sterling individuals decided to act out their private passions in public. But, then again, the media has a direct interest in persuading you that they have.

Take a simple example. If you are coming home late at night and see a drunk passed out on the street in a compromising or immodest position, what behavior will your instincts dictate? First, to look away; second, to cover him or her up; finally to call for help.

Decency requires you to help someone who has inadvertently become too exposed. The first way you do so is by not ogling his or her involuntary self-exposure. The second way is to ensure that others cannot do so either. This is what it means to belong to a human community.

This tells us something interesting. Perhaps our our interest in the multiple scandals that animate a goodly part of the 24 hour news cycle derives from our wish to help these people out. Perhaps our motive is slightly more noble than prurient voyeurism.

Now, a different example. Think about your friendly neighborhood ecdysiast-- which is a nice way of saying, stripper. Should you happen to be in the presence of said ecdysiast while she is plying her wares, looking away or ignoring her performance would be rude. You would not be tempted, even in an excess of piety, to run up on stage and cover her up.

Of course, you are engaging in an economic exchange; you are paying her to sacrifice her modesty to your enjoyment, and have no reason to ignore what you just paid to see.

So if we ogle scandals as though we were ogling an ecdysiast, we are simply following the rules of the specific game that is being played. Of course, the latter, by definition, will not appear on the nightly news.

Where Freud and Kipnis assume that bad behavior represents the truth of our repressed impulses, instincts, and desires, I would recommend that we consider such behavior within the realm of human possibility. Being possible does not make it a necessary truth. 

We are all be capable of eating human flesh-- to take some egregiously bad behavior-- but that does not mean that it is our heart's desire, and that we have repressed it into vegetarianism or sublimated it into a love of hamburgers.

If you follow Kipnis, and take Freud to be your source of dogmatic truth, you would have to assume that we all want to do what exhibitionists do, and that, since we can't, we envy them their courage.

If Kipnis or anyone else is consumed by a lust for scandal, then perhaps she believes that these people have more courage than she does, that they are more honest and open about their feelings, and thus that they should be emulated, even if she cannot do so herself.

Because that is one logical conclusion we can draw from the concept that scandal expresses something that the rest of us repress.

Hopefully, today's teenagers and young adults have not received that message from our culture's leading intellectuals.


sssychology said...

This article is pertinent to what you call the "therapy culture" as well as the difficulty of that lady getting along in Turkey and the differences in acceptable behaviour between a small slice of humanity and the rest of the world:

"In other words, we do not know what we thought we knew about the human mind. We only know about the mind of a particular, unusual slice of humanity.

The UBC researchers also found that 96% of behavioural science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, which account for just 12% of the world's population. Sixty-eight percent were Americans. The United States is dominant in the field of psychology, accounting for 70% of all journal citations, compared with 37% in chemistry. Undergraduate students are often used to stand in for the entire species.

"This is a serious problem because psychology varies across cultures and chemistry doesn't," says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

Read more:

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for drawing our attention to the work of Jonathan Haidt. He is a serious thinker and his work deserves recognition.

While there are certain constants in human psychology, there are also significant variations that depend on cultural factors. Some studies have also shown that psychology varies considerably depending on the structure of the language one speaks.

This implies that if we want to change mental functioning-- making it less dysfunctional-- we also need to change the way people interact with others in their social worlds.