Scandalous times

Critic by Rhonda Dredge

There is a naive belief that media exposure will help bring problems into the spotlight, leading to their solution and justice for injured parties.

Dr Alex Ling of Western Sydney University has travelled down the east coast to comment on the scandal at the town hall. 

The case of the Lord Mayor and former councillor Tessa Sullivan has been on everyone’s lips over the summer break but is this a good thing? Philosophers often stay in the background, tending the archive, but Dr Ling’s joining the fray.

Like many holidayers, the researcher has been following the revelations in the media and finds the picture of Sullivan in a bikini particularly telling. It provides yet more evidence for his contention that contemporary scandals tend to reinforce stereotypes.

Dr Ling makes a distinction between a scandal that truly brings about a fundamental change in thinking and ones that we find comforting. A few days after the town hall scandal, an actress appeared on TV with tears in her eyes, describing what happened to her behind a sheet on The Rocky Horror Show.

Are the two media events examples of the belittling sexual commodification foisted on young women? Dr Ling has his doubts, not that the women are suffering as a result of the exposure, but because of the structure of scandal.

“Scandals tend to polarise opinion,” Dr Ling said, whose book Scandalous Times will be published by Bloomsbury later this year. The publishing of texts between Melbourne councillors, for example, has reinforced impressions rather than dug deeper into power relations at the town hall.

Similarly, after the Harvey Weinsten scandal in the US, actresses campaigned to have their salaries increased on the grounds of gender equity but “the men are already privileged,” Dr Ling said. Equality should be the driving force across society not just between male and female stars.

Scandals can be defined in terms of the social impact they have, “the social affect brought about by movements of authentic change or revelation.” This is in contrast to swings in public opinion on the streets of Melbourne when new details are revealed.

“A scandal is the simplest form of enticing narrative,” Dr Ling said. “Revelations appear to uncover the truth.” Yet, the issue at the town hall might be a larger, democratic one. “So much is open to perversion and distortion.”

Dr Ling makes a distinction between scandals that bring about social change and “fake” scandals that give us a “junk food rush” but little more.

“No-one knows where the #MeToo campaign will lead. It appears to be an authentic movement by the oppressed. The key thing is always to have a beacon of equality,”  he said.

Philosophers tend to view events in terms of history. A true scandal should agitate people, Dr Ling said. “It is polemical on good grounds. Many may feel their voices are finally being heard.” This can be an incentive for the abused to speak out.

Movements that genuinely overturn power relations have the capacity to bring about social change even though the decision to speak up may be difficult. Past allegations of sexual harassment have ended up in legal suits being filed on complainants.

Jump. The timing has never been better. This could be the catch-cry of scandal-makers in the media or it could be a sign of genuine change. Publicity has its own rewards, witness the video clip of Miley Cyrus and her comments in 2014 that appeared to condone date rape.

Sex sells newspapers and there’s no denying that the media digs up dirt. Cyrus admits that she likes to shock.

Scandals can be seen in two predominant ways, Dr Ling said. There is the revelatory form that appears to pull back a curtain and expose hidden machinations and the form that is invented by marketers to decorate the face of contemporary capitalism to stimulate consumer interest.

No-one can deny that we live in scandalous times, brought about by the rise in social media, and Dr Ling is the first to do a comprehensive study of the structure of this narrative form.

“We live in a time in which we are inundated by scandals more so than ever.”

Alex Ling, Scandalous Times, Bloomsbury, 2018

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