April 29, 2021

During the jaded latter days of the Tories’ last long stretch in power I was a teenager with a paper round. As such I probably got more exposure to news headlines than the average 1990s adolescent. I remember such smash hits of “Tory sleaze” as David Mellor’s toe-sucking debacle, the cash-for-questions scandal that toppled Neil Hamilton, and, of course, the “Miss Whiplash” affair, in which Norman Lamont was revealed to have rented an apartment to a dominatrix — and then used taxpayer money to try and evade the fallout.

Something of the 1990s Tories’ Caligula-lite vibe has crept into the current administration. Boris Johnson’s extra-marital affair with pole-dancing American entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri has emulsified queasily with a lobbying scandal involving former Prime Minister David Cameron. This has blended in turn with an increasingly bitter fall-out between Boris and Dominic Cummings, a rift that’s resulted in a series of escalating leaks of the sort that drive lobby journalists into a feeding frenzy. Meanwhile, onlookers are agog at the rumours of Boris taking private donations to redecorate the flat above No. 11 Downing Street, while also remaining avid for Before and After shots.

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And yet Johnson seems unembarrassable. As the whiff of corruption emanates from Cameron’s lobbying antics and Covid procurement alike, pundits lament the moral decline of our “shameless elites”. But in truth the relationship between elites and shame has long been contested — and no one is quite on the “side” they claim to be on.

Shame is a fundamentally social emotion. Even if you’ve done something bad, you’ll probably just feel guilt — until you get found out. By then you’ve broken the proverbial Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Not Get Caught’. And when that happens, historically communities have used shame — often combined with creatively humiliating forms of violence — to exact retribution in brutally public ways.

In premodern times, someone who both breached social codes and violated the Eleventh Commandment was often held in a pillory of some kind, so they could be mocked, flogged or pelted with garbage. Finger stocks were used to punish minor infractions, while in 16th-century Newcastle people who abused alcohol were paraded through the streets wearing “the drunkard’s cloak”, a large wooden barrel with a hole for the head and sometimes hands.

More brutal forms of public castigation-as-spectacle included tying miscreants to whipping posts or behind a cart where they would be whipped through the streets, starting and ending in the wrongdoer’s own neighbourhood so everyone they knew could point and jeer. Other, permanent forms of punitive disgrace included branding and facial mutilation — a practice intended not just to cause pain but leave an impossible-to-conceal mark of public disapproval.

This kind of ritualistic public shaming occupies a zone somewhere between politics, violence and public entertainment — a space we mostly like to pretend doesn’t exist. As well as punishing a miscreant, the performance of disapproval works to warn others against the same crime. And seeing someone punished for breaching shared moral codes is a gratifying scene for the moral majority.

Why don’t we do this today? Some imagine this is because we’re more morally advanced. The cultural theorist Michel Foucault (himself recently, posthumously shamed for sexually abusing children) disagreed. He argued in Discipline and Punish that it was more about power and economics: over time prison, surveillance and training regimes came to be understood as effective means of moulding people to fit industrial society than spectacular public punishments such as whipping.

But even if Foucault is right about these large-scale shifts, there are plenty of moral infractions that don’t merit such severe penalties as corporal punishment or prison. And in cases such as these, societies didn’t want to stop using shame, even as reformers campaigned to abolish public flogging. Rather, we discovered new ways of shaming people, at scale, that rendered such practices obsolete.

Chief among these is the mass media. In medieval times, moral standards were largely set by communities, with interventions from aristocrats, the Church or the law. But the rise of newspapers through the 18th and 19th centuries drove the adoption of more standardised moral views — and also their enforcement, via public shame.

By the early 19th century, there were 52 London newspapers and more than 100 other titles. Local and national papers carved out a role covering court cases, and often played a significant role in swaying public opinion for or against more severe punishment. In tandem, punishments became less physical: flogging retreated behind the walls of prisons, and in 1830 the pillory was abolished.

You’d think this would feel less barbaric than the cat o’nine tails, or pelting people with rotten veg. And yet intellectuals chafed under the newfound tyranny of bourgeois public morality — with some actively seeking to undermine its authority.

In his 1859 work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill condemned the homogenising effects of 19th-century mass media for imposing a general condition of “mediocrity” upon everyone, including exceptional people. Mill lamented the way “public opinion now rules the world” — for, as he saw it, this rule meant the ascendancy of little minds.

People no longer took moral direction from church or government, Mill complained, but from “men much like themselves” speaking to them through “the newspapers” in support of a deadening consensus he called “Custom”. For exceptional individuals to be liberated so that they can innovate and improve society, this moral stranglehold must be ended. “The progressive principle’, Mill argued, ‘is antagonistic to the sway of Custom.”

Mill set in train a line of liberal argument that amounts, in effect, to a demand for a society’s top echelon to be exempt from both the moral constraints and also the enforcement mechanism of public shame — even as they continue to apply to the masses.

The modern inheritors of Mill’s patrician disdain for the petty moral codes of the bourgeoisie are those liberals who sneer at “Daily Mail readers” and other consumers of the tabloid press. These are generally depicted as mediocre minds induced by their choice of reading to lurch from moral panic to moral panic. A 2014 article on the satirical website Newsbiscuit sums this perspective, with an article claiming the Daily Mail‘s website is to be fitted with a “Moral Panic” button for readers to express their sense of outrage.

Implicit in this attitude is an ambivalent relationship to moral norms as such. It’s not exactly that there shouldn’t be any norms. It’s more that the person sneering at “Daily Mail readers’” views themselves is one of Mill’s “Persons of genius”, and as such is entitled to be freed from such constraints. This, suggested one commentator recently, is at the heart of our Prime Minister’s approach to, well, everything (including marital fidelity, and renovation expenses). That is, Johnson simply doesn’t think rules should apply to him, even if they do to everyone else.

So Johnson represents an impressively pure expression of Mill’s patrician moral exceptionalism — if not the uprightness Mill perhaps naively assumed would come from it. Those who have not yet attained Johnson’s Olympian state of exemption from ethical pettifogging, though, remain ambivalent about public shame, as well as about which norms it should be used to enforce.

On the one hand, the two most popular British newspapers are those most strongly — albeit sometimes self-contradictorily — associated with outrage: the Sun and the Mail. This fact suggests the population as a whole still sets considerable store by moral norms, and thoroughly enjoys the public shaming of people who breach them.

Yet on the other, received opinion among the elite is firmly set against the notion that there exists such a thing as right and wrong. Not a week goes by without one of our august liberal outlets seeking to bust yet another taboo. And yet it’s John Stuart Mill’s ideological successors, the progressive enemies of “Custom”, who are today’s keenest users of the digital pillory against their enemies through the growing political power of “cancel culture”.

And this, ultimately, gives a clue to why the latest crop of “Tory sleaze” seem so muddled, and so curiously flat. At issue is not just whether or not Johnson did this or that, but what this or that should even mean in moral terms. Ultimately, the outrage lacks force, because we’re no longer sure which court of public opinion has the authority to shame public figures for wrongdoing — or what even constitutes “wrong”.

These questions form the core of today’s “culture wars” and are a long way from being settled. And until they are, we can expect to be governed by relativists, chancers, and the congenitally shameless.