"Serves her right, she shouldn't've done it" was typical of the responses I encountered to the plight of the unfortunate young woman whose recent horizontal encounter with a number of Irish rugby heroes was videoed and splattered all over Facebook. This appeared at one with the internet commentary, which heaped abuse on the young woman.
But imagine for a moment that, instead of being humiliated on Facebook, the woman had been “read” from the altar by her local parish priest – would any or many of these people have responded in the same way?
Far more likely is coast-to-coast outrage directed at the moralising pastor, with extended sittings of Joe Duffy to cope with the numbers wishing to defend the young woman from such an appalling attack on her freedom. The same people who decided that what's happened to this woman "serves her right" would be declaring she had "every right" to express her sexuality in whatever way she pleased. And we would not, I suspect, be spared reference to Ireland's having "moved on" from the judgmentalism of the past.
Once again, it has slipped into focus that, far from our becoming less condemnatory by virtue of being more “modern” and “liberal”, there has simply been a changing of gaolers. Because the new breed of moralisers have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, we overlook that they are fulfilling precisely the function formerly supplied by clerics with blackthorn sticks. The Valley of the Squinting Windows has not gone away. Its judgmentalism has transmogrified and upped sticks to a different aperture, but remains as potent and as forbidding as ever.
Then, stage right, enter the startling figure of British PR guru Max Clifford, fresh from providing media advice to himself on foot of his own recent difficulties.
Max's essential message, delivered in an interview with the Sunday Independent, was: confess and seek reconciliation with the community. "The best advice I would give her is not to sell her story. Look, it's out there now, love, everyone knows. The horse has bolted. Sit down, do a newspaper interview but don't sell your story. They will respect you more for it. People will understand. All you have to do is say is that it was one of those crazy things. If you had too much to drink, say it. Explain: 'I let myself down badly and I feel terrible that it ever happened and it will never happen again.' She shouldn't name the players. She will get no thanks for that. She should say, 'It wasn't their fault, it was totally my responsibility and it was 100 per cent the wrong thing to do', and people would think an awful lot of her for that. Most people will understand once she sets the record straight and then she could move on and rebuild her life and get on with things. We all make mistakes."
Responsibility for 'sins'
Essentially, Clifford is telling the young woman to take full responsibility, though on a tactical basis, for her "sins". He anticipates a fresh onslaught of judgmentalism if she seeks mitigation by reference to the actions of the other parties. He is playing not so much for an explosion of truth as the manipulation of public sympathy. His advice, in effect, is: confess and beg for forgiveness.
But, given that our values are supposed to have changed in the new dispensation of openness and freedom, what exactly does the young woman need to apologise for? By the standards of our new permissive culture, she has committed no offence. Indeed, she has taken the reigning culture at its word and given full vent to her desires. In some respects, taken by the measure of this culture, she might be regarded as an object of envy, having engaged in an experience that others merely get to fantasise about.
In the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation, pardon and peace are granted unconditionally to the sinner by God, provided the sinner exhibits sorrow of the soul, detestation for the sin and a resolve not to sin again. In the new “liberal” dispensation, pardon is available on condition that the sinner publicly attest to the extent to which she is hurting by virtue of engaging in actions which, although valorised by the reigning culture, continue to be disapproved of by the community (perhaps because they involve experiences that are beyond the reach of most of its members).
In Catholic culture, repentance is predominantly an interior process. In the new liberal dispensation, it’s an exterior procedure, conducted for the pacification of the community, which requires to be appeased by anyone who appears to have scaled the culturally-supposed heights of human longing. The act of “reconciliation” here is not with God, but with the eavesdropping community, which has been in equal measure titillated and threatened by reports that one of its members has achieved something it defines as close to the optimum experience of freedom.