You Say Catharsis, I Say Schadenfreude

Illustrations by Zohar Lazar

Are scandals ever morally instructive, or do we just pretend they are to justify our titillation? A discussion between Jim Holt, author of the forthcoming book Why Does the World Exist?, and Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern and ­author of How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior.

Jim Holt: Laura, I know you’re heavily invested in highbrow scandalmongering—I mean, you wrote a whole book on how it’s supposedly “cathartic” for us to watch famous people publicly self-destruct. Well, I hate to say it, but the kind of scandals that obsess you and the media these days are really pretty trivial. Go back to 1906, when the millionaire Harry Thaw fatally shot the architect Stanford White in the face on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden—which White himself had designed—over White’s rather kinky dalliance with Thaw’s actress wife. Now there’s a big, juicy scandal. And today we’re supposed to achieve catharsis when a congressman gets caught “sexting”?

Laura Kipnis: One interestingly counterintuitive argument I’ve read is that it’s actually sexual liberalization that leads to more scandals, because 50 years ago, let’s say, you couldn’t publish the details of people’s tawdry dalliances, JFK being the great example. So because the press can now publish all the details of cigars and thongs, we do get more small-scale, tawdry scandals.

J.H.: Oh, I don’t know: The yellow press wasn’t shy about printing that White had a sex pad with a red velvet swing. But now, with “Page Six” and Gawker, even the most trifling embarrassments get bandied all over the Internet. Who is the audience for this stuff? You know the famous quotation that “scandal is merely the compassionate allowance that the gay make to the humdrum”? I’d rather not be among the humdrum.

L.K.: You protest too much, Jim. I happen to know that you remember obscure details of scandals going back twenty years. Who remembers Sukhreet Gabel but you? [The daughter of the judge in the “Bess Mess] And I’m really not interested in catharsis. I think we’re fascinated by scandal because we’re trying to comprehend the social and psychological dynamics of the world we live in. For example, how can you not be stunned by the failures of self-knowledge and tragic self-deception of someone as otherwise brilliant as Eliot Spitzer? I’m not arguing that scandal is morally elevating but that it exposes the underlying fault lines that govern all our lives.

J.H.: But let’s talk for a moment about the real moral damage that an obsession with scandal can do. One of the scandals you touch on in your book is the Bill ­Clinton–­Monica ­Lewinsky business, and I was just reading a review of a memoir by a U.S. diplomat who was in Rome negotiating the American participation in the International Criminal Court at the time. He said that his bosses in Washington were so distracted by the revelations spilling out that they couldn’t be bothered to give him instructions on how to negotiate jurisdiction over genocide and war crimes, so today we are not a party to the court!

L.K.: Given that there was absolutely no way the affair with Monica was not going to be exposed, it does raise pretty critical questions about his self-destructive tendencies, which doesn’t seem entirely irrelevant when it comes to the qualities of a national leader.

J.H.: But that kind of behavior is self-destructive only because we’ve come to make it so. I’m with Molière here: To sin in private is no sin at all. When Kennedy was president, the press more or less agreed.

L.K.: I don’t disagree, but let’s face it, these are the times we live in, and for anyone in politics to willfully ignore the existence of the scandal press is to be fatefully oblivious to those historical realities. In fact, what’s so distressing about so many of these scandals is the degree of obliviousness even the most rational people are capable of. Take Anthony Weiner. It’s fascinating just how much unconsciousness he seemed to be scattering around in public for the rest of us to witness. He wasn’t just sending lewd pictures of himself to these women; he was sending out engraved invitations to his own downfall.

J.H.: I would maintain that we’re all constantly engaged in behavior that would be our undoing if it was exposed to the glare of publicity. By the way, in objecting to scandalmongering I’m by no means objecting to gossip. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that scandal is gossip spoiled by morality. It’s the feigned moral outrage in the public’s reaction to scandal that I find a bit nauseating.

L.K.: Yes, but as we do live in a scandal-obsessed culture …

J.H.: I don’t want to live in that culture. You make me feel like William Buckley. I want to stand athwart the times and yell , “Stop! Stop it or you’ll go blind!”

L.K.: I’ll be interested to hear what exit strategy you figure out.

Download the Complete History of Scandals [PDF]

You Say Catharsis, I Say Schadenfreude