clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Ever gratified to hear of sinners awakening to the desire to help others, Miss Manners has been noticing an amazing phenomena. Everybody who publicly confesses to behavior that we used to consider disgraceful now explains doing so in order to be of service.

"I'm speaking out so that my experience will serve as a warning to others," they will say."I want to reach out to other people who might have the same problems, so they know they're not alone."

"I wouldn't want anyone else to have to go through what I did."

"I want people to know that you can live through this and come out all right."

"If I've helped even one person, it will have been worth it."

This high-minded admission, along with the lurid confessions that go with it, has been standard for some time now. It strikes Miss Manners and everybody else as being so laudably philanthropic that she is embarrassed to be harboring a troublesome little question:

Does it, in fact, help others? Has all this open confession served as a deterrent to errant behavior? Are things improving?

Miss Manners doesn't know the answer and certainly cannot presume to deny that the modest goal that these altruists set - of saving that one soul - is achieved. The comfort of those who thus discover that they are not the worst people in the world must be considerable.

But before she joins in the admiration for the courage exhibited by public confessors, she would like to explore whether perhaps some incidental damage is also being done.

Could all this be contributing to destroying the concepts - minor perhaps, but dear to her - of privacy and reputation?

That the privacy of the confessors vanishes is probably not something she needs to worry about. Many people seem eager to abandon their privacy voluntarily, especially when there is a chance to do so on television. Others may have originally been prompted to go public involuntarily, by such institutions as our open criminal court system or our less formal blackmail system, but have subsequently chosen to expand public knowledge of their cases.

This is their privilege. Miss Manners is only puzzled as to why it is characterized as courageous to sacrifice a reputation one had already lost, or that one is eager to exchange for attention. But then, she never did understand the transformation of misfortune into glory. When she hears the term "hero," she always thinks it is a reference to the rescuer, when it turns out to be to the poor person who needed to be rescued.

What does trouble Miss Manners is that our sense of privacy is eroding to the point where valuing one's privacy is interpreted as cowardice or worse. The nosy are no longer condemned; it is those who refuse to satisfy their probings. Not exposing one's troubles to the curiosity of others, even strangers, is interpreted as a sign of either dishonor (as in, "he must have something to hide") or self-condemnation (as in, "she should realize that it's nothing to be ashamed of").

Next, she worries about establishing the idea that there is no point in building a fine, lifetime reputation, because a checkered past can never fairly be counted against one. Public confession has become an eraser of misdeeds, and the slate of a person who has committed serious transgressions can be quickly made as clean as that of someone who has managed to stay out of trouble.

Goodness knows that Miss Manners believes in the redemption of souls, or she would hardly be in the business she is in. And the etiquette trade is extremely big on forgiveness.

But she can't get used to the idea that a newly cleaned record is considered no worse than one that was never tarnished. Or maybe better.

And that is what troubles Miss Manners most of all. Understanding and forgiveness, two noble attitudes toward the morally weak, have quietly slipped into becoming admiration.

It is beginning to sound as if those who have always managed to stay out of major trouble are not just thought dull (ever the downside of being known to be good) but lacking in imagination and spirit. Not being fully developed, they would have nothing useful to teach anyone else. And so a checkered past becomes a qualification to teach virtue.

Leaving aside the peculiar idea that anyone who hasn't erred doesn't know much about life - aren't those who succumbed to weakness more likely to lapse again? Are they really safe examples to hold up?

It's not that Miss Manners doesn't commend the spirit that has led these people, with all their other difficulties, to offer themselves as role models to others. It's just that she wonders that we don't seem to have anyone better for the job.