What makes scandals so interesting? A good scandal can be titillating, outrageous, entertaining, satisfying and edifying—it allows us to feel superior, to pity or despise the transgressor and to get vicarious pleasure, all at the same time. It becomes a “feeding frenzy.” People can’t get enough of it—every morsel is chewed and devoured like delicious rich cake.
Scandal allows us to fantasize about the lives we don’t lead. In Adam Phillip’s new book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life he makes the point that everyone lives several parallel lives—the life we actually live and the lives we feel we SHOULD or COULD have been living. Depression, anxiety and other types of dissatisfaction result from the frustration one feels that he or she should be living a different, more exciting, more daring, sexier life. Scandals allow us, through fantasy, to vicariously experience an “other” life, while leaving us reassured that we are better off in our ordinary, non-scandalous existence.
What exactly is scandal? Scandal derives from a Greek word for “snare,” implying that one is “snared” into moral failure. Scandal was originally a term used to denote a discredit brought upon religion by “unseemly conduct in a religious person,” especially if it encourages a lapse of faith in another (Merriam Webster).
Today, scandal has a spectrum of meanings, including discreditable or immoral conduct, damage to reputation caused by such misconduct, and malicious or defamatory gossip, whether or not well founded. “Scandal” and “Slander” share the same root.
Scandal is relative. What causes a scandal at one time or in one place might not in another. There can be no scandal without a scandalized public. Former Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi’s solicitation of underage prostitutes resulted in his arrest, but apparently, no significant scandal. According to Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, that is because, in Italy everyone loves a party. (New York Times, Sept 8, 2013).
On the other hand, the scandal of former Congressman Anthony Weiner who ran and lost the primary election for Mayor of New York City is remarkable for what he did NOT do. “He did not commit adultery. He did not break up a marriage. He did not employ the services of a prostitute. He did not stalk. He did not misuse public funds…He did not have inappropriate physical contact—or any physical contact—with any person.” His scandal resulted solely from “pixels on a screen.” Herzberg (New Yorker Magazine, August 28, 2013). Or, perhaps, from his persistent lying and acting foolishly in public.
Scandal takes on a life of its own, and, sometimes, the actual facts of the matter are of little importance. As the dictionary definition above implies, the gossip may be more enthralling than the details of what really occurred.
Every person struggles with impulses to break the rules, to violate boundaries. These unacceptable attributes are rejected in oneself but are embodied in the scandalous person, who becomes larger than life. Similar to watching porn or a horror film, one can experience terror, outrage, extreme anxiety, sexual excitement and relief, without having to engage in risky behavior.
Here are 5 reasons we love scandal:
- Vicarious pleasure in the rule-breaking of another. Transgression is titillating. Every person is tempted to break rules and boundaries but for the most part, resists. The scandalous person has given into temptation.
- Pleasure at the punishment of the transgressor. There is a sense of moral satisfaction when the scandalous person is humiliated or punished. It restores faith in the orderliness of the moral universe. Scandals exaggerate the sense that there are good and bad people.
- Pleasure at watching someone “get away with it.” In Missing Out, Phillips writes that “getting away with it” occurs when you obtain the forbidden object of desire without paying penalty. The unpunished transgressor allows us to imagine this (potentially thrilling) experience.
- Pleasure at being asked to forgive. This elicits a feeling of power and triumph in the person to whom the request is made. The transgressor has to grovel, and forgiveness can either be granted or denied. This provides the non-transgressor a feeling of superiority, however fleeting.
- And perhaps most importantly, distraction from the tedium of one’s own difficult everyday problems. Reading about the scandals that have beset others is a great distraction. Not only does it take our minds off our problems, it also assures us that our problems are small and manageable in comparison.
We all have parts of ourselves we don’t want to acknowledge that wish to do harm. These disowned parts are easily projected onto the alleged perpetrator who is experienced as repellent and alien. Abby Stein, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice notes, “In the presence of perpetration we may be repelled but we are also excited. In an odd way, people who have done awful lurid sexual things to others are not just interesting—they are downright sexy.”
When someone breaks the rules, violates boundaries, it can be upsetting to observe. But reactions to scandal are more complicated than simple moral outrage. If it were just outrage, people would not become so fascinated and involved. It is the combined reactions of outrage and disgust on the one hand, and fascination and titillation on the other, that makes scandal exciting. That’s where fantasy and vicarious pleasure take center stage.