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Whatever happened to scandal?

This will probably sound absurd, but in my opinion the best thing that could happen to this country in the remaining weeks of 2017 and beyond would be an increase in scandal.

I don’t mean “scandal” in the contemporary sense of something bad that a politician or some other famous person did or didn’t do or doesn’t remember doing (or remembers doing in some unspecified but obviously less-bad way), the kind of thing that we either despair over or cheer for depending on what we think of the person in question. We have certainly had our fair share of this in the wake of reporting on Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Al Franken, and a long list of other names. Nor do I mean something that disgusts or offends us, though that is closer to the mark.

I am talking about scandal in the old-fashioned sense of something that is not only bad in itself but which, due to the position of the person — we’ll call him or her the scandalizer — responsible for the action, induces others to do bad things. When a public figure — an actor, a judge, an NFL star — is guilty of some misdeed and we become aware of it, we may not be tempted to emulate his or her behavior, but we somehow become acclimated to it. Somewhere an imperceptible faculty for discerning good and evil is diminished; the currency of our innocence is being debased, however infinitesimally. Eventually this adds up. Our machines break down; our accounts are overdrawn.

Celebrities — a broad category that involves not only the kind of people whose lives are reported on in Variety but any reasonably well-known figure — are obvious examples of potential scandalizers because they exercise considerable influence over fashions, tastes, opinions, institutions, and even laws. But it’s not just people with Wikipedia pages who are capable of giving scandal. Anyone with a certain proximity to another person can do it. You can be and almost certainly have been scandalized not only by reports on the hidden conduct of lecherous rock stars and venal politicians but also by the familiar actions of colleagues, teachers, casual acquaintances, above all by your closest friends and relations.

I should be clearer about what I mean when I say that we could all do with a great deal more scandal. It’s not actually the supply that is lacking. Potentially the stock is more or less unlimited. Nor is it quite a demand problem, because it’s not something anyone can really desire. What we no longer seem to possess and what we need desperately, I think, is the ability to recognize that it exists at all, that our actions have consequences beyond those immediately affected by them, for good or ill. When a person who matters somehow in your life does something wrong, you are affected by it, whether you are the immediate object of it or not. When we give scandal to others what we are really doing is committing an offense against their dignity as persons. The crimes that give rise to scandal might be against bodies or bank accounts or buildings — but the scandal that follows from them is an attack upon the soul.

We no longer recognize scandal, I think, probably because very few of us have any idea what it would be like not to be scandalized. American politics, virtually the entire entertainment industry, vast swathes of the internet, ordinary unremarkable conduct that most of us under the age of 50 or so grew up thinking was normal in courtship or family life or office or educational culture: All of these have been an uninterrupted source of scandal our entire lives. We are immured in scandal, nurtured and habituated in it, so broken that we cannot remember wholeness, like W. H. Auden’s innocents “Lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good.”

Yet we are no longer quite at ease with our surroundings. Some of us are guessing the answers to questions we had never thought to pose. It is possible, in poorly written stories in The New Yorker‘s fiction section, in tweets and personal essays and clumsy think-pieces whose still-false premises nevertheless follow accidentally to something like the truth, to catch a glimpse of a world in which scandal is identified and no more tolerated than the crimes of which it is both sequel and progenitor.

The forgetting of “scandal” in the older sense — the work of tabloids and political consultants and our own frazzled consciences — has been an immeasurable loss. It is probably a fool’s errand to attempt to trace with any earthly compass the tangent of providence at the point at which it intersects with that bizarre metafiction known as “the discourse,” but if ever there were a time in our public life when it looked as if we might have a chance to recover it, that point is now.