In our contemporary age, once someone is a public figure every aspect of their lives and behavior is viewed as fair game in attempting to destroy or discredit them. It should be noted, though, that this tendency is not limited to public figures alone. The same tends to be the case when one is looking at legal or administrative courts. One time I was a mock juror who was supposed to help a personal injury case be settled before trial, and among the pieces of information dealing with an accident was that the injured party was an illegal immigrant. It should be noted that I am rather hostile to illegal immigration, but at the same time, even if someone does not have a legal right to be here, if they are injured they have a right to seek redress, and then get deported. Likewise, when you are a part of proceedings regarding child support, everything is fair game there as well, and it is something that tends to make such matters even more stressful, as people are seen at their worst in matters of grave importance.
In reading a great deal about Jewish ethics recently, it was striking to see that there is such an emphasis on evil speech on this tradition, and on truths that do not need to be known. I must admit I am rather ambivalent to this. On the one hand, I tend to be the sort of person who relishes digging up truths that are not well understood or well realized. I tend to think that facts trump feelings, and that it is better to know the truth than to live in illusion. Yet at the same time knowing truth does not mean knowing every fact that it is possible to know. Quite frankly, I do not know want to know every detail about the lives of others, and I am sure that others do not want to know all of the details concerning my own life. I tend to think that people, regardless of what position they are in, deserve privacy. We are all accountable to God for our personal life, as well as to those who are in a covenant relationship with us. At the same time, our personal struggles should not lead to our public shame and embarrassment. To the extent that we betray the public trust, it is of interest to the larger public, but far too much of our own time is spent dealing with private issues that lead most people to exhibit at least some sort of hypocrisy.
I think the evaporation of privacy has a great deal to do with the general coarseness and cynicism of contemporary society. It is difficult to hold people in high regard when there is nothing that we do not know about them. When we know that they eat or drink too much, that they have problems in their marriage or with their families, it is hard to think of them as being heroic. To be sure, people do their best to hide their bad sides, but with scandalmongerers all over the place, it is hard to hide such things forever. The widespread belief that everyone is corrupt in some fashion makes it harder to disqualify people as corrupt in some aspect of their lives if they happen to support policies we like. Yet neither we personally, nor the media itself, has any kind of fair and just and consistent standard when it comes to such matters in these days. In the past, there were gentlemen’s agreements between the press and public figures that would keep certain matters off the table when it came to coverage, but there are few gentlemen in existence in our present days, and so narrow partisanship seems to have replaced a general sense of decorum when it comes to such matters.
It is not only in politics where the issue of this sort of decorum becomes an issue, but also when it comes time to look at historical heroes. For example, recently I have read a great deal about Oskar Schindler, and in reading about him, there are several obvious aspects of his life that draw attention. On the one hand, he is nearly universally considered to be a hero because of his bravery and daring in saving the lives of more than a thousand Polish Jews during World War II. On the other hand, he was a person whose personal life included corrupt business dealings, flagrant womanizing, and a terrible approach to handling money. Those who make a point of discussing his heroism in saving Jews often feel duty-bound to discuss how much of a failure he was in the postwar life because of his inability to find a settled place in a normal world, and that his reckless irresponsibility and general corruption helped him to save Jews and was an aspect of his heroism. That said, not all who are considered heroes have the same degree of openness applied to their lives. The heroism of MLK in opposing racism in the United States is typically celebrated without a great deal of discussion about his moral failings in academia as well as his personal life. What is it that makes Schindler’s moral failings an obligatory subject of discussion while MLK’s failings, which are of a similar nature, are viewed as being irrelevant to his heroism? A willingness to cross lines can be a good thing when it causes us to oppose popular errors and societal sins, but it can be a very bad thing when it leads us to violate our covenants to a spouse.
So what is fair game? Is it necessary to acknowledge the sins and shortcomings of famous or heroic people at least briefly before we move on to the heroism and importance of their good deeds that we would prefer to talk about? Do the foibles of people make it impossible for them to serve for the greater good of others? What is relevant in a given situation? Is it possible to have a fair standard that helps us to understand when vices can be virtues and when virtues can be vices in terms of saving lives and thwarting evil? Perhaps such issues are hard because people do not fit into very many easy boxes. It is easy to say that loyalty and fidelity are good things, in general, but when one is asked to be loyal to an evil regime like Nazi Germany, then disloyalty is something to be celebrated. If we only define good and evil by our own views, and not seek to shape our views of good and evil by a just standard, then our view of privacy and our selectivity in how we judge others will continue as it has.