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Cousins, Chaser and the court of public morality

  • 15 June 2009

What do footballers who give photographers the bird, comedians who make jokes about sick children, boat owners who bring asylum seekers to Australian shores, cooks who swear, and cricketers who drink, have in common? They are all made part of morality plays that share an identical plot.

The play begins with a report of bad behaviour and a short period of silence for the heavy clouds of opinion to gather. This is followed by an explosion of judgment. As the judgment is amplified it leads to outrage and universal condemnation. Those who refuse to join in are usually themselves condemned.

Then the clubs, sponsors or organisations with whom the offender is associated confirm the condemnation. The National leaders may also rise in judgment. The offender apologises and is condignly punished. The curtain falls, only to rise again with a different set of characters.

The frequency and stylised quality of these performances might be attributed to the media finding that firestorms are profitable. But the media usually intuit and respond to public need. So we might ask what it is in the public mood that is discharged by these rituals of sin, exposure and expiation.

Perhaps the key lies in the air of anxiety that attaches to each scandal. More always seems to be at stake than someone behaving badly. There is an unspoken fear that the barbarians are at the gates, and that if something decisive is not done this kind of behaviour will become endemic. Our moral world may be irrevocably changed.

The atmosphere is redolent of the primary school playground. A boy does something unacceptable, something brazenly naughty. Another child says, 'Look at that boy!' The cry is more than an invitation to look at something interesting. It expresses excitement that rules are being so spectacularly broken, but also anxiety that the network of rules that offer protection are so easily torn.

Then the teacher intervenes by telling the boy that he should be ashamed of himself. Order is reimposed, the boy apologises and some minor punishment is imposed. If the matter is important the school principal may make a pronouncement about it. So is anxiety allayed.

Perhaps a similar moral anxiety is disclosed and discharged in the public rituals that surround behaviour deemed inappropriate. If so, it would not be surprising. The ways that our culture provides for us to think about reality are undeveloped and externalised in much the same way