Scandals are everywhere. And it has become tremendously simple to feel indignation. It is enough to pick up a newspaper, at best the papers with the big block capital headlines. It is enough to switch on the evening newscasts, preferably of the commercial stations. It is enough to connect oneself in some way or other with the excitation machines of the modern media society. And there it is, irrepressible, meddlesome, and noisy: the scandal. It gnaws at us if only briefly; it demands sacrifices that we quickly forget; it forces us to do public penance, which we enjoy. There are scandals in the world of finance, scandals of corruption, sex and abuse, scandals of the feuilleton as well as the intellectual debate, political scandals, scandals in the churches and the unions, the enterprises, the banks and the media, in sport, in the theatre and in the world of literature. “Day by day”, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk notes, “journalists try very hard to introduce new infectious agents into the arena, and they observe whether the scandal which they want to release starts to blossom. One must not forget that 20 to 30 suggestions for indignation are launched every day in every modern nation most of which naturally do not lead to the desired result. Modern society may be a form of life that enjoys scandalization but it does not take up every suggestion of scandalization. Most of the suggestions to get worked up about are rejected or only studied with moderate interest.”
An analysis of the paths of distribution of such suggestions for indignation and a reconstruction of the different phases of scandalization show that the typical scandal embedded in the logic of the mass media has differing features. At the beginning, there must inevitably be some kind of misbehaviour, the violation of a norm. Then comes the revelation engineered by journalists, then—if the topic has taken hold— the outcry, the collective outrage of the public, and finally the ritual of reprocessing and public accusation with all the variants of such a reaction. Some of the accused justify their behaviour or reject everything. They apologize in public and confess to their guilt. More or less defiantly, they declare themselves to be victims and insist that the real injustice and the real scandal is the fact that they have been attacked at all. There is the final step. “Both groups of participants, the scandalizers and the scandalized”, the sociologist Karl Otto Hondrich writes, “must execute it themselves in some sort of subversive collaboration. But they do this under compulsion: the collective feelings, whipped up to enormous heights, demand satisfaction. Violated values must be restored, imprecise rules must be sharpened, careerist high-climbers must be toppled, individuals must be sacrificed—on the altar of the most widely shared moral emotions.” And after all that, the great process of forgetting sets in, not for the actors, not for the victims, but certainly for the majority of the readers, listeners, and spectators. What remains is at best shreds of memory, opinions, sensed truths. The public loses interest and, usually after about six to eight weeks, turns to new topics because general indignation has a very short half-life. Every exciting event carries a close best-before date.
Nevertheless—despite all its volatility—the actual moment of collective outrage is particularly enlightening. In it, the general public re-enacts the great moral dialogue and explains to itself what values are in force or should be. With the scream for scandal, individuals or even whole nations reveal their understanding of normality and assure themselves of the values they believe in: The more homogeneous the outrage, the more stable and accepted the system of values that is under attack. An open and pluralistic society that does no longer feel bound by particular positive values, a society that disintegrates into quite different worlds and realities, fakes agreement and collective morality by distancing itself with commonly shared anger from all that which it has recognized as bad and evil. Even the confrontation with the outlandish, the immoral and scandalous, allows a society to reinforce moral norms and to make limits visible again by their very transgression, as already pointed out by Emile Durkheim, one of the co-founders of modern sociology. This is the morality of immorality.
This general lust for scandal, however, this modern form of the debate about values, does not usually get a good press. In the struggle for attention and a share of the market, journalists are seen to practice a brutal form of manhunting. The scandal is perceived as an extremely pernicious form of communication. This means of the typical form of a scandal, launched and spread by the mass media, is in fact an instrument of enlightenment—and of counter-enlightenment. It enforces, often with extreme brutality and efficiency, responsibility and possibly vital new beginnings— certainly a positive feature—but frequently stimulates only rather thoughtless schadenfreude, voyeuristic pastimes, the collective amusement caused by the dramatic downfall of a once celebrated hero. It determines agenda and makes the moral debate appear urgent, it intimidates the powerful and destroys hierarchies of domination, and it sometimes even gains the power of an undemocratic election that topples dangerous charismatic leaders and despots. The typical scandal has two faces.
[This post is a shortened extract from the book "The Unleashed Scandal. The End of Control in the Digital Age" by Bernhard Poerksen and Hanne Detel.]
Learn about the new visibility in the digital age in two weeks on Hanne’s blog “The Unleashed Scandal.”