Now that Tiger Woods has won a tournament after a long time, and looks like he is on an upswing, are his past indiscretions likely to be forgotten? Will we all ‘move on’; will the fans return, will the sponsors come scurrying back, will the media start lionising (hmm) him all over again? Is he suddenly more legitimate now, given that he seems to be coming back to his winning ways? At one level, celebrities come under moral scrutiny in ways that are much more intense than do ordinary mortals. And yet at another, it does seem that they are likelier to be forgiven more easily for their sins.
Shiney Ahuja, for instance has been convicted of rape and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. And yet, while out on bail pending his plea to a higher court, he is busy promoting his next film; is seen at parties and appears in several sympathetic media accounts. Now it is true that the maid who had accused him in the first place has since changed her testimony, but unlike in other cases where this belated change of heart would have come under hard scrutiny, what we see here is tacit acceptance that borders on eager complicity. Interviews with him now frame the entire incident as a ‘bad phase’ and wait for a time when ‘this mess’ will be over. In spite of how it looks, it is possible that he is innocent of the crime he has been accused of, but what is interesting is the ease with which the question of his guilt has become a non-issue.
Azharuddin is yet another example of how success confers on celebrities a healthy distance from moral considerations. For someone who has been banned for fixing matches, he is not only a Congress MP, but recently accused accuser Vinod Kambli (not the most credible whistleblower it must be said) of having a poor character. Over the years, he has lived the life of a celebrity without any real problems; the alleged betrayal of millions of cricket fans being of little real consequence in his life.
Perhaps what really confers immunity on celebrities is not whether they succeed or fail; it is the fact that they are celebrities in the first place. The role of celebrities, it would appear is to live their lives for our entertainment. Every transgression is a plot twist, a new chapter in the story they tell us about themselves. The morally punctilious celebrities make good role models but poor copy. The reason why we apparently forgive a Shiney Ahuja or Tiger Woods is because we get bored of disliking them. And it does seem a shame to waste a perfectly good celebrity by consigning them permanently to the moral waste bin. Their sins are not forgiven as much as forgotten. Stories of moral turpitude are delicious but then those about redemption are heartwarming and who doesn’t like those?
In a larger sense, we now separate bouts of moral outrage from the larger idea of morality. Outrage is an episodic eruption of pleasurable disdain directed at those who have things bad enough for us to talk excitedly about for a while. Morality itself is a more cumbersome and distressingly permanent set of codes and conventions from which there is no easy escape. Morality calls for permanence of memory and constancy of rules. It needs us to be resolute and measure ourselves against those that have fallen; morality tests us as much as it tests the others and is thus difficult and exhausting. Outrage on the other hand is a product that we can pick off the shelf, consume and throw away. It is an enactment of morality, a gesture that is imbued with moral considerations, but one that is donned for a while and discarded.
The anger against Tiger Woods or Azharuddin was its own reward; it was not embedded in a larger, more permanent network of belief about right and wrong. In fact increasingly, by virtue of living in the backdrop of time that is fragmented, the idea that one’s actions today carry long-term consequences is itself under negotiation. We live through a series of event flashes, discrete episodes with their own narrative logic. As our lives get influenced less by samaj, and its fixed ways and more by samay, that elusive sense of today-ness, that justifies transience and flexibility, morality as an idea will go through redefinition. In that world immoral actions would be bad, but boredom would be the worst sin of all.
TOI Sunday, Dec 11, 2011