My usually sedate hometown was startled last week by the discovery of a ‘celebrity sex tape’: our female mayor allegedly had been secretly videotaped by some Polish tourists during a vacation in Spain four years ago. She was caught having sex with her then boyfriend, in a public area, more specifically on a tower. The passersby filmed from a distance, zooming in on the two lovebirds. Although there is no nudity involved, every adult can suspect the couple is doing something more than merely enjoying the view from a high building. All the ingredients were there for a typical tabloid character assassination.

The tape already circulated on the internet, but only last week some people from our small city stumbled upon it. What was to be expected, happened: immediately our mayor became the laughing stock of specially created Facebook groups, she got a new, not really flattering nickname, and a carnival song was made about the event. Of course some people, including politicians and some media, demanded her resignation. I was (and actually still am) in doubt about the whole situation. I’ve been asking myself whether the reactions towards our mayor are in proportion to her misbehavior. The bottom line is that she could be charged with public indecency. However, this doesn’t happen. I guess Spain has got more important things to spend its tax money on. Hence people somewhat take the law into their own hands. They take matters ‘to the streets’, the virtual ones of the internet, and the real ones of their hometown – whose carnival festivities are UNESCO World Heritage, and are known for their mockery of all kinds of people, especially of local politicians.

As I tried to make clear in a previous post, carnival festivities have all the features of old rituals which are eventually rooted in scapegoat phenomena. I have some reasons to believe that what happens to our mayor is exactly that: a scapegoat phenomenon. People who use their time and energy to publicly make fun of her, blame their own actions entirely on the way their victim, our mayor, behaved. In other words, they make our mayor a scapegoat, unwittingly transforming themselves into persecutors. They say She had it coming, she asked for it”, while technically, in purely juridical terms, that’s not exactly the case. There is no proof whatsoever that she asked to be videotaped and to be put ‘online’. The passersby are still responsible for their own actions. They were not obliged to film her, as we are not obliged to mock her.

I must admit I find the situation somewhat hilarious myself, but I think we shouldn’t exploit it to the point of ‘public shame’. I can imagine myself, or someone else for that matter, telling some anecdote about an embarrassing moment in my life (at the doctor’s office, anyone?), as I can imagine our mayor joking about something awkward that happened in her life. It all makes a good laugh. But to use the kind of mistake our mayor made to demand someone’s resignation, seems out of proportion to me. Even more so because she is only partly responsible for what happened. She didn’t steal anything, nor committed adultery, nor killed anyone. She was caught in an act many lovers could have been caught in.

There was a time (indeed, “was”) when lovebirds drove to an abandoned public area to make love to each other. It’s one of the more recognizable moments in American Graffiti, a movie by George Lucas. When a couple makes love in a car, near a river, two people pass by, but they leave the couple to itself.

This scene is contrasted by yet another early movie of George Lucas, THX 1138, which seems to be a perfect reflection of our current situation. Like 1984, the famous novel by George Orwell, THX 1138 portrays a future society where people are constantly watched by each other and by cameras. The film shows a totalitarian regime, a world without freedom, where people constantly have to fear their neighbor might give away their ‘mistakes’. In THX 1138, a couple is making love while being watched by a band of ‘Big Brothers’, who eventually convict the couple.

The troubling thing is we don’t need a war to end up in a situation like the one described in George Orwell’s 1984, or portrayed in THX 1138, although the atrocities of war facilitate certain social reflexes. For example, after the second world war people publicly shamed women who were known to have a German, Nazi boyfriend. These women were accused of ‘collaboration’, and since official, legal charges take a lot of time to be followed through, impatient crowds took the matter into their own hands. As said, apparently you don’t need stores of rage and vengefulness, built by a traumatizing war, to seduce people to mock someone. You just need a person who ‘stands out from the crowd’ a bit, a ‘public figure’. A mayor, or some other ‘celebrity’. Kurt Cobain, late front-man of grunge pioneers Nirvana, describes it well when he reflects on how the media constantly try to find sensational stories about him and his lover, Courtney Love: “I think we’re just easy scapegoats… We turn into cartoon characters.” Being an easy scapegoat is one of the burdens of being a celebrity, which allegedly made Kurt Cobain commit suicide at the age of 27. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to be harassed, mocked and bullied. Tyler Clementi, a promising young man, was secretly videotaped by his classmates while having a sexual encounter with another man. The video was posted on the internet, as a ‘joke’. Eventually Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, September 22, 2010. He was only eighteen years old.

There’s no place in this world for over-sensitive people. So it seems. To quote Charlie Chaplin from his magnificent speech in his equally magnificent film The Great Dictator: “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness hard and unkind.” Indeed, we seem to use our knowledge to gain power over others and to “turn them into cartoon characters”. Yet I still believe we have a choice, as ‘free’ individuals, not to give in to processes of victimization and of scapegoating. We can give in to the power of a Love that wants to know the person ‘behind the cartoon’, that is concerned with personalities ‘beyond labels’. To ‘murder’ a person is to ‘steal’ his or her ‘nakedness’, his or her soul… We have a choice not to do that…

Alice Nahon, a Flemish poet from Antwerp, puts it this way (free translation):

“Before you go to sleep,

Look into your own heart,

And ask yourself:

Did I hurt someone’s heart

In the time between dawn and dusk?”


In Dutch:

‘t Is goed in ‘t eigen hert te kijken

Nog even voor het slapen gaan

Of ik van dageraad tot avond

Geen enkel hert heb zeer gedaan.

I’m a weak person and a coward in many ways, and I need this advice every day. I once met a drunk man on a bus who made racist remarks to a black woman. He asked me to hold his bottle of whiskey for him, while he kept harassing the lady. I remember the rage in his eyes, and the way he asked my approval of his behavior. I was too afraid to stand up against what he was doing. I forced myself to laugh. At the next stop, I got off the bus, 4 miles from home (around 6 kilometers), and continued walking. To this day I feel ashamed and sad about what happened then. From this experience I learned that it is necessary to question the deeper motivations of our actions at any time, in order not to commit evil where we see ‘no harm’, and where we think we are entitled to ‘defend ourselves’ or even ‘assert ourselves’… ‘creatively’. Not all of our actions are as innocent as they might seem. I don’t want to point fingers. I just made the next video compilation to reflect on what we are capable of as human beings – and I need this reflection as much, or even more so, as you do, dear reader.

Please click the following image to watch the video, and feel free to post comments (the quote on ‘common people’ is by alternative rock band Pulp, from their song by the same name)


(LEES HET BIJGEVOEGDE ARTIKEL – klik op Kanttekeningen bij een ideologisch atheïsme)

Gisteren, dinsdag 29 maart A.D. 2011, mocht ik als godsdienstleraar deelgenoot zijn van een deugddoend, inspirerend en hoopgevend gebeuren. Sinds kort komen enkele leerlingen van onze school, uit het laatste jaar van de humaniora, om de twee weken samen om van gedachten te wisselen over een vooraf gelezen, korte filosofische tekst. We bespraken, gisteren op onze tweede bijeenkomst in het licht van een eerste lentezon en op het nog bedauwde gras in het stadspark van Aalst, een tekst van de Duitse filosoof Max Scheler (1874-1928).

Grote denkers laten steeds een glimp zien van de potentieel humaniserende kunst van het filosofische vragen. Bij Max Scheler is dat niet anders. Het fragment uit zijn Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik, in een Nederlandse vertaling weliswaar, wees ons op het onherleidbare en ‘transcendente’ karakter van morele waarden. Tegelijk waarschuwde Scheler in zijn tekst voor de verleiding van een totalitarisme – waarbij ‘het goede’ onterecht vereenzelvigd wordt met een bepaald systeem, of zelfs met een bepaald persoon.

In de woorden van Scheler zelf: “Wanneer men de zedelijke waarden goed en kwaad bindt aan dingen buiten de wereld van de waarden, zoals bijv. aan een aanwijsbare lichamelijke of psychische toestand, of aan het lidmaatschap van een stand of een partij, dan spreekt men over ‘de goeden en gerechtigen’ als over een objectief definieerbare klasse. Op die wijze vervalt men steeds in een of andere vorm van farizeïsme. Het identificeert de dragers van ‘het goede’ en hun groepskenmerken met de waarde zelf van het goede, ja zelfs met het wezen van de waarde als zodanig ofschoon zij in feite enkel als dragers van de waarde fungeren. De uitspraak van Jezus: ‘Niemand is goed behalve God alleen’, is juist tegen ‘de goeden en gerechtigen’ gericht. Hij wil niet zeggen dat er geen enkel mens goed is, in de zin van: er bestaat niemand met goede eigenschappen. Hij wil enkel zeggen dat het goede zelf nooit kan bestaan in een begrippelijk bepaalbare eigenschap van een mens.”

Onze bijeenkomst gisteren motiveerde mij om een tekst te herwerken waar ik sinds vorige week aan schrijf. Naar aanleiding van het voorstel van Patrick Loobuyck om de confessionele keuzevakken op school te vervangen door één ‘neutraal’ vak levensbeschouwing, ben ik wat dieper gaan graven naar de vooronderstellingen van een bepaald atheïstisch discours. Ik denk dat in dergelijk discours de transcendente, onherleidbare, ‘oncontroleerbare’ en ‘niet zomaar in categorieën in te passen’ dimensie van de werkelijkheid vaak vergeten wordt. Als zodanig wordt dit discours dogmatisch en ideologisch.

Vandaag heerst vooral de neiging om alles te herleiden tot iets dat marktwaarde heeft. Niet alles is echter onmiddellijk nuttig, nodig, of ‘te managen’. Af en toe mag het verwijlen bij de onzekerheid van onze zekerheden ons, vanuit dit bewustzijn, op het spoor van een ‘belangeloos’ genieten zetten waarin de dankbaarheid heerst. De bijeenkomst van de leerlingen gisteren beschouw ik als een kleine, stille en vreedzame revolte tegen het vertoog in onze samenleving dat de stem van de reflectie vaak afdoet als ‘overbodig gezwets’, en dat alles wat niet direct efficiënt is gemakkelijk waardeloos acht. Een verdere uitwerking van het specifieke discours waarbij vraagtekens geplaatst worden, is te lezen in het bijgevoegde artikel – zie bovenaan deze post of klik hier de titel aan:

Kanttekeningen bij een ideologisch atheïsme.

Ik dank Ilias, Bert, Alexander, Freija, Jonas, Tijs, Matthias, Dries, Elly, Siemen, Astrid en Willem alleszins voor hun inspirerende impulsen.