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Gossip is wrong only because it gets something right. We only gossip about behavior we identify as a downfall, and usually that is right. Where the gossiper goes wrong is in taking pleasure from it--a pleasure which is magnified so long as he can pretend, pridefully, that he himself has never been guilty of a similar fault.
Besides being uncharitable, gossip harms us through frittering away conscience. A gossiper finds mere diversion in a subject from which a moralist would draw a lesson. Instead of meditating on someone’s collapse, drawing deeply upon it and learning a lesson--in fear and trembling--by gossiping we shield ourselves from ever having to change our own behavior. The pleasure we take in another’s downfall if anything has the opposite effect, making us more pleased at the prospect of acting in a similar way ourselves.
This is why I am fascinated by the story of Tiger Woods and his numerous “mistresses” (a puritanical euphemism which is itself telling). We are presented with a false dichotomy: join in the unseemly gossip of the tabloids, or pass over the subject with discrete silence, which is to ignore a third alternative, namely, observe prudently and learn. Every occasion to gossip about Tiger’s downfall is equally an opportunity to learn from it.
The truth is that Tiger presents to us a giant, American morality tale which touches upon every important area of life.
For instance, what counts as success in life? Last year at this time, most every guy working a boring job to support his wife and children wouldn’t have hesitated to say that Tiger was more successful. Now, correctly, it looks as though every man who has remained faithful to his wife is the greater success. Someone might tell the son of such a man, “Your Dad is a much more successful person than Tiger Woods” and be speaking the plain truth. Since happiness simply is genuine success, this change in perception is far from trivial.
Another question raised by Tiger is why we should care about sports. A sport is entertainment, but not simply that. Just as we encourage children to play sports for the lessons they teach about life--such as toughness, a sporting spirit, and teamwork--so it is good to watch sports (think of the Olympics) for the examples of heroism, character, and virtue they provide. Accenture knew this full well: they wanted Tiger as their representative only so long as he stood for self-discipline and integrity.
If women more frequently downplay Tiger’s fall by gossiping about it, men do so by compartmentalizing. “He can still astound us with his skill.” “We never thought he was anything more than a technician.” But a robot can strike the golf ball more accurately, and what could justify watching golf for long hours if it were only a matter of viewing cold technique?
Another question raised by Tiger is whether there is such a thing as the virtue of chastity. It’s been said that you know that you have a virtue when you do the right thing even if no one could find out. A man who has the virtue of chastity never entertains the suggestion of infidelity; like Joseph the patriarch in prison, he’ll even push away the opportunity angrily. Some men try to minimize Tiger’s behavior by saying that any man would do the same in his shoes: “Face it, you really want to do what Tiger did, and if you had the opportunity, you would.” Men who say this kind of thing are actually denying the reality of chastity--a sign that they lack it themselves.
Not that there isn’t reason to think that chastity is rare. It’s been estimated that one out of every two Catholic men views pornography, which is to say that he acts exactly like Tiger to the extent that he is able, only in his fantasies.
Yet another question raised by Tiger is the unity of the virtues: Is it true that a person cannot have any virtue without having them all? Tiger’s case certainly suggests that a single vice--unchastity, which involves putatively “victimless” wrongs (but don’t ask the abandoned spouses and aborted babies)--will eventually undermine someone’s entire character. Presumably it always had undermined Tiger’s character but only seemed not to have done so.
But if unchastity undermines someone’s complete character, this in turn raises a question about the worth of a typical college education. Tiger was simply behaving in his professional life the way that many, if not most, college students behave in college. It would hardly be surprising if it were discovered that Tiger’s “sex addiction” were simply the continuation of patterns of life adopted at Stanford. But then what is the value, on those terms, of a prestigious college education? “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”
Finally, Tiger raises the question of the availability of forgiveness. It is presumed that if Tiger says he is sorry -- and “makes adjustments” in his life (as he now puts it) -- then all is well. But since when? Why should saying sorry get him “off the hook” in any cosmic sense? Why wouldn’t he still be “under a curse”? Are sins ever taken away except through the blood of Christ? People presume so, but for the life of me I can’t see on what grounds.
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.