Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski: Are they tarred forever?
In an ever-more interconnected world, finding common ground on morals is difficult, meaning would-be pariahs like Mel Gibson or Roman Polanski meet with only scattered and ephemeral outrage.
The one-two celebrity scandal update on Mel Gibson and director Roman Polanski â€“ in which Mr. Gibson is being tarred as a pariah for his abusive language while Mr. Polanski, a self-confessed child molester, has been freed by Swiss authorities â€“ points to what everyone from public relations specialists to religious leaders and academics call an increasingly loose moral terrain.
Todayâ€™s pariah is tomorrowâ€™s successful artist, politician, or even corporation, and in fact, the very notion of a pariah or social outcast itself may be disappearing. â€śThe idea of a pariah suggests uniform community standards we all agree upon,â€ť says Alan Wolfe, author of Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice.â€ť With a world of increasingly interconnected value systems and cultural beliefs, that sense of uniform moral clarity is fast disappearing. â€śWe may be moving into the era of temporary pariah status, at the most,â€ť he says.
Family counselor and author of 22 books on spirituality in modern life, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach calls this a time of â€śvaluelessness,â€ť one in which the only shared value is winning. â€śWhen kids cheat on tests these days, the message they get is not that itâ€™s bad to cheat, but that itâ€™s bad to do badly on the test,â€ť he says, pointing out what he considers the bottom line in a competitive, consumer culture. â€śThe only thing we punish now is failure.â€ť
Rabbi Boteach has counseled numerous celebrities, including Michael Jackson and Lindsay Lohan, and says that it is the height of Hollywood hypocrisy to dub Mr. Gibson a pariah at this point in his career, when he suggests the actor/director created what he calls a monument to anti-semitism years ago with his runaway hit, â€śThe Passion of the Christ,â€ť and was subsequently shown in the press to have repeatedly made anti-semitic comments. â€śWhere were they back then?â€ť he asks, adding that the only reason for the current shunning is that Gibsonâ€™s career is in a serious slump.
The threshold for even â€śpariah-for-a-dayâ€ť status is getting lower with every scandal, says PR and reputation expert Adam Kluger. But there is no guarantee of absolution or condemnation for any given offense, he points out. â€śIt is a mixture of many factors such as likability, past track record, and the seriousness of the deed,â€ť he says. Todayâ€™s public figures, whether athletes, movie stars or politicians, have the added burden of zero privacy. â€śMost of us have done or said things we arenâ€™t proud of, but we donâ€™t have to see them going viral all over the Internet and then edited and mashed up with the worst parts played over and over,â€ť he says. This, of course, is aside from the very real fact that in the entertainment world, a â€śbad boyâ€ť image is often good for a career.
The mediaâ€™s role is fueling a downward spiral in shared moral values, says Walter Guarino, strategic communication professor at Seton Hall University and president of SGW Advertising Agency. â€śSensationalism may have been upgraded in order to enhance sales,â€ť he writes in an email, adding, â€świth the speed of online news, bad news travels faster than ever,â€ť pointing to the ratings value of the recorded Mel Gibson phone call.
â€śThe line does get fuzzy about who decides who becomes a social outcast," says Mr. Kluger. "It usually revolves around the degree of criminality we as a society assign to each individual. If an Olympic athlete smokes pot, we'll forgive him. But I don't think Roman Polanski will ever have an image other than what he has now,â€ť he adds.
While he would not have signed a petition in support of Roman Polanski as many big Hollywood names did, Mr. Wolfe says â€“ â€śthat is one act that is heinous and beyond the pale,â€ť he says â€“ he points out that the current consumer culture, â€śis one of forgiveness.â€ť Even the Catholic church is not so quick to excommunicate people these days, because â€śa consumer culture needs customers.â€ť Beyond that, he points to such thorny problems as the Hollywood blacklist, a postwar period in which many careers were ruined based on rumors and speculation. â€śWhile it is a good thing to have moral boundaries, there is always the danger of getting it wrong and condemning an innocent person.â€ť