What is it about les affaires d’amour that seem to capture our interest? Wave for our attention? I am reassured by the activity in the world’s blogs -not to mention its press- that I was not alone in noticing the recent fuss around the alleged affair of the president of France. Adam Gopnik’s piece in the BBC News is, I think, one of the best reports:
It suggests, at the very least, that I was not born with an unusual amount of prurience -if one can think of it as a personal quality akin to, say, courage, or agape. But is it just curiosity that attracts my attention to activities I have hitherto been unwilling to perform -and, now that I am not in a relationship, perhaps even definitionally unable- or something more basic? Primal? Contemptible?
It has been argued that sexual affairs mainly pique the interest of those who have not yet had the chance to indulge in them -those whose consciences are clear not because it is beyond their pale, but more beyond their skill. Or opportunity… Being somewhat virginal in this respect -or perhaps naïve would be a better term- I imagine I can be allowed to comment on them, albeit from a position of ignorance… and yet I don’t suppose there are any rules, are there? It seems to me that only someone with an absolute and unquestioned possession of what is right and wrong should be qualified to judge. We usually assign this role to a deity. None of my friends fit into this rather narrow slot; no one in political office for sure…
For that matter, are there any absolutes when it comes to morality? Apart from such obvious things as murder or child molestation -I’m only short-listing things, not closing the door- why do there seem to be so many societal discrepancies? Is it simply a ‘Well they’re not like us, so don’t listen to them?’ or something more profound?
‘When in Rome, do as the Romans.’ I grew up with this aphorism, for some reason. It was certainly not geography -Winnipeg and the vast Canadian prairies were my childhood homes- and yet what I interpreted it to mean was that if you were living in a place where they did things differently, try to fit in even if you didn’t understand. Even if you didn’t agree. They likely had a reason to which you were not -yet- privy. Hollande -being French- has been variously caricatured as ‘typical’, ‘selfish’, or even ‘amoral’. But it is as if the Romans -read the French- always behaved a certain way. Or worse, being told by a non-Roman that Romans behave a particular way. And even worse: being informed by a non-Roman who has never even been to Rome (but has read about it)… I don’t know, it’s too much ‘third-cousin-twice-removed’ information for me.
I think we have to divide the Media’s interest into two parts. First, is it acceptable to cheat on someone; and second, should people in authority be somehow exempt from such intimate and personal scrutiny? Is this merely -I used the word before- prurience? The answer to the first question seems self-evident: no. There may be circumstances where cheating is easier, circumstances where it just ‘happens’, even circumstances where it might be possible to keep it secret, but I’m struggling to think of circumstances where it is the correct thing to do. Full disclosure: I’m an avowed, life-long ethical relativist, and yet even my relativism sees a problem with this. For that matter, even a liberal interpretation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative (an action is correct only if you could accept everybody doing it) suggests that sexual affairs might be problematic. And I have to come down somewhere, don’t I..? Or is it permissible to obfuscate? Delay until the subject is forgotten.. or at least until something else is front and center?
How about the need to examine those in power more carefully than their flock? Well, not more carefully –as carefully. We are, none of us, above criticism; none above personal scrutiny -not because of who we are so much as that we are. Whether a public figure should be judged for things outside of the public realm is not the issue. If whatever doesn’t effect performance or obligations, then it must be assessed separately. Judged separately. But like it or not, agree with it or not, it will be analyzed. We do not live in a vacuum and we all cast shadows that follow us around as long as there is light; it is in darkness where ambiguity proliferates and context is muddled. Mistakes are made in the dark… and rumours lie like fields of mud. Waiting.
And then there is the rather insulting question of whether the French are somehow… different. Do the French really have a societal acceptance of ‘affairs’? Are they somehow less titillating there than elsewhere? It seems to me more appropriate to ask the questions differently. All of us that are not French ask them from the framework of our own belief systems, our own closets. No matter their answers, we will interpret them as members of different Magisteria where words, not to mention values, imbue them with different colours, different shades of relevance. We all see the world through different parents, and tempered backgrounds. We braid our opinions with fragments of ‘other’ to be sure, but in the final analysis we are seldom them, as much as us… Our judgements can rarely be extracted from the warp and weft of where we live and how those around us think.
Most of us are still, sadly, prisoners in Plato’s Cave. Have the French alone escaped? Would we know?