Public office and private lives

Editorial

In recent weeks there have been various memes doing the rounds on social media, taking a dig at the number of MPs resigning after various wrongdoings. One such meme says “Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights”.

The MPs who left were from both sides of the House. The issues which saw them depart included sending private health information about others to media, sending indecent material by phone to a university student, and having an inappropriate “affair” with a person who had been a subordinate.

Much of the public debate that has ensued has broadened from these specific cases. The discussion has largely focused on whether a politician’s private life should be regarded as private, and therefore not a consideration for voters.

At one level, Parliament itself draws its own line. An MP loses his or her seat if convicted of an offence punishable by life imprisonment or by two or more years’ imprisonment, or if convicted of a corrupt practice.

But, in the court of public opinion, debate after the recent parliamentary departures raised questions such as “if a married politician who has an affair lies to his family, how can anyone trust him”?

Other voices noted, however, that the nation might be worse off if the skills and abilities of some candidates were not able to be utilised because of failings in their private lives. This has been the default attitude in nations like France, where private dalliances are considered off-limits, although one recent case shows this may be changing. Paris mayoral candidate Benjamin Griveaux withdrew from the contest after it was revealed that he had (as a married man with three children) allegedly “exchanged intimate mobile phone messages with a young woman and sent her a personal video”. This sparked huge debate in France over what was seen as the “Americanisation” of French political life — the apparent intrusion of an irritating puritan morality, as one writer put it.

A perceptive article by David Graham in The Atlantic in 2018 noted how different things were a few decades ago. Well-regarded US Presidents like Kennedy, Johnson, Eisenhower, Roosevelt and many others had affairs while married. But these were not reported by the media of the day. (Graham notes that one of few US Presidents without any serious allegations of infidelity in marriage – Richard Nixon – was the most famously unethical president).

Things began to change in the late 1980s, leading up to the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky saga and the blaze of publicity that attracted.

But the really interesting point made by Graham was the changing role of shame in the lives of politicians.

“It’s no accident that the famous line that helped sink Senator Joe McCarthy [in the 1950s], uttered by Army General Counsel Joseph Welch, was this: ‘Have you no sense of decency?’”

Graham stated that things are very different today. “Because the public seems largely unbothered by infidelity, politicians are less likely to show shame; because politicians treat infidelity lightly, the public focuses less on it too. It is literally a vicious cycle: a cycle in which vice is encouraged.”

“A political system where voters are indifferent to adultery may or may not be a good one,” Graham concluded. “A system where politicians are immune to shame is almost certainly not a good one. But if such a system results in both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump as presidents, it’s hard to draw conclusions about what sorts of leaders it produces and what that means for the future.”

Shame is usually viewed negatively. Catholics know all about negative shame and its close cousin guilt.  But shame can give rise to positive outcomes. As Mary Gail Frawley-0’Dea wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in 2010, “there is a shame experience that deepens our relationships with self, others and the sacred. This shame signals that we have transgressed, instructs us to make amends, and warns us to refrain from behaviours that lead to the deepening of shame, with its concomitant fragmenting of our psyches, souls and connections to others”.

Maybe one question voters could ask in New Zealand before September 19 is – do I think the candidates up for election are capable of feeling shame? The answer would say a lot about our “body politic” and where our country is headed.

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Michael Otto

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