Thursday, 10 April 2014

Maria Miller, Nigel Evans and public humiliation

I do not know Maria Miller.  I have no special regard for her, beyond the (rather significant) role she played in the passage of the legislation introducing same-sex marriage.  She took a lot of flak over this - rather bravely, I thought; and an acknowledgment of this was perhaps partly behind David Cameron’s initial decision not to ditch her when the press campaign to force him to do so got going.  Gay marriage was his baby; and he knew that Mrs Miller had borne much of the heat of the battle to secure it on his behalf.  For those with ears to hear, his reply to her letter of resignation goes beyond the usual formulaic expression of regret.

Otherwise I have no view on the case, beyond the commonplace observation that those in high places do well to ensure their affairs are in order.  In our unforgiving public square, ignominy awaits the careless.

And what ignominy it was in this case.  There was a near as we ever get to a concerted campaign to force her out. “One of David Cameron's more decent instincts”, wrote Polly Toynbee, not usually one of his milder critics, in the Guardian, “is to protect his team from the wolves.”  Well he had a good go; but in the end even he could not withstand the blistering heat of the attack.  Which incidentally featured a huge banner, sponsored by the Sun and held aloft outside Parliament, depicting a millipede with Miller’s face and bearing the legend: “Time To Quit Miller. Just Thought We’d Flag That Up”.  Classy stuff.

Anyway, quit she (eventually) did, and honour was satisfied.  Well, if it was not exactly honour, it was perhaps our own peculiarly British variety of schadenfreude, which delights in seeing wrongdoers – especially prominent ones - brought down and punished.  I was reminded of nothing so much as of accounts of how, in the 18th century, crowds with drinks and snacks would gather outside Newgate prison, so that on the eighth strike of St Sepulchre’s clock, they could enjoy a good hanging (or two).  Perhaps there is something in our makeup that relishes public humiliation.

And our proxy in all this is, of course, the press – on the future regulation (or not) of which Maria Miller was working at the time of her demise.  We leave the papers to do the self-righteousness, name-calling, and crude vindictiveness for us, since they exist to speak truth to power and celebrity in ways that we cannot and would not.  And when they go too far (and they cannot easily restrain themselves), we can back off, and claim they are not doing it in our name.  But we know they are pandering to our baser instincts; and when our pleasure over the latest downfall or humiliation has subsided, we sense that we have colluded in something not very noble.  That may lie behind the entirely proper, yet unexpectedly fulsome, joy with which Nigel Evans MP’s acquittal on sex charges was greeted the day after Miller’s resignation.  When we know we have been complicit in bringing someone down, we unconsciously compensate by raising another up.  I suspect the anti-Leveson libertarians overlook the subtle moral game the British play with their press, and that ultimately, we will consent to its regulation.

Since this is my first post for a long time, I hope I may be permitted a theological reflection.  The gospel reading for Passion Sunday this year was the account of the raising of Lazarus.  The passage features the famous verse “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).  It is sometimes assumed that Jesus wept over the death of his friend; yet he had already in absentia announced Lazarus’ death and predicted that he would rise again to glorify God.  When he reaches the tomb in which Lazarus’ body lies, and sees Mary (Lazarus’ sister) there weeping, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (NRSV).  He is moved not by Lazarus’ death, but by Mary’s distress.  Jesus – true God and true man – shows that, to be moved by another’s distress, is both deeply Godlike and deeply human.  It is a profound expression of the love of neighbour to which he repeatedly calls us.

I am delighted for Nigel Evans: I cannot imagine what life has been like for him over the last year, and I give thanks that his Christian faith seems to have sustained him.  But I am also sorry for Maria Miller who is, for all I know, a perfectly nice person and perhaps not incorrigibly wicked.  In any case, her demise and probable distress isn’t doing a thing to cheer me up.

1 comment:

  1. The crowds in the Colosseum, baying for blood - this is always the image that comes into my mind when the media (and latterly, Twitter) lathers in a frenzy and froths at the mouth, impatient for the lion to devour its victim (which, in former times, might have been a Christian).

    I recently looked-up 'schadenfreude' as I was not satisfied with the word. I came across the French variant, 'joie maligne', which to me is far more satisfying. As a matter of interest, I think an English phrase such as 'perverse pleasure' suffices to describe the atmosphere in the terraces when another victim is fed to the hungry beasts.