Ah, the sweet smell of scandal … Don’t you just love it when a renowned institution or individual deemed beyond reproach has their reputation definitively tainted by the discovery of some deep moral failing or criminal action? No matter how appalling the object of the controversy, there is so often that inescapable and surreptitious feeling of satisfaction in seeing those endowed with a moral superiority being brutally brought down to earth.
Yet it’s also true that our reactions to the hypocrite-in-the-headlights moment is often colored by our own politics, whether we are more likely to cringe at the family-values righteousness of the religious right or the preachy one-worldness of the left.
The recent accusations of groping against Democratic Senator and women’s rights advocate Al Franken recalled the mega sex scandals linked to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF and stalwart of the French Socialist party who’d said all the right things about gender equality in public.
And now, the latest controversy is not about a single person, but an emblematic organization: Oxfam, one of the world’s biggest NGOs, after accusations that the UK-based charity’s aid workers frequented prostitutes in Haiti and Chad.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2010 in Frankfurt — Photo: R4200/DPA/ZUMA
Writing in The Guardian, Gaby Hinsliff puts it plainly: “Think of the least likely place on earth to be plunged into a sexual abuse scandal, and Oxfam shops would surely be high on the list. What could be less predatory, and more wholesome, than a world full of kindly old women patiently sorting jumble? … And yet it’s precisely the assumption that the good guys should be above suspicion that has proven so dangerous in the past.”
And indeed, the fallout is spreading fast — maybe too fast. Priti Patel, the UK’s former International Development Secretary has accused charities — not just Oxfam but several others as well — of creating a “culture of denial,” alleging that sexual abuse inside charities, including of minors, was “a wider issue” and that the cases that had been disclosed until now were “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Already, the Oxfam scandal has emboldened those who would want to see the government make cuts in foreign aid, gleefully rubbing their hands as they seize on this golden opportunity to push forward with their political agenda that was never about the probity of individuals. In the same way, catching a philandering senator who had preached family values is not in itself proof that those values are without merit.
The truth is that people of all ideas and backgrounds do bad things every day, and that the work that many good people do sadly ends up as collateral damage, as we celebrate those falling from on high. But just remember that savoring the failings of others is often the first step toward those very same headlights of hypocrisy.