Notes From a Scandal: What Tiger Teaches

The easy move is a self-righteous tut-tut, to feel better about ourselves by comparison. But this is the culture we, not Tiger, created.

January 1 st 2010

Tiger Woods's meltdown has exposed a toxic mixture of ego, lust and fame. It's an old story on steroids. He and the expanding list of cocktail waitresses is chum for a tabloid feeding frenzy. The facts of the case are not nearly as important as what the public reaction says about the state of our culture.

Fame is a socially accepted, institutionally reinforced, market-driven idolatry. We are all touched by the resulting celebrity culture. We are all bit players in its narrative arc from casual namedropping to Facebook photos.

I am reminded of Ernesto Cardenal poem, "A Prayer for Marilyn Monroe," which has this stanza:

          Lord, in this world
          contaminated equally by radioactivity and sin,
          surely you will not blame a shopgirl
          who (like any other shopgirl) dreamed of being a star.
          And her dream became a "reality" (Technicolor reality).
          All she did was follow the script we gave her,
          that of our own lives, but it was meaningless.
          Forgive her, Lord, and likewise all of us
          for this is our 20th Century
          and the Mammoth Super-Production is whose making we all shared.

The easy move is a self-righteous tut-tut, the clucking of tongues, the rueful smirks. Like the audience reactions to chair-tossing fights on Jerry Springer, we somehow feel better about ourselves by comparison.

But if we look carefully, the celebrity culture in which we live is both of our making, and, in turn, has made us who we are. There are lessons to heed.

First: the public struggles with moral clarity over the casual serial adultery of the world's most famous athlete. "He's just an athlete, not a role model," says one commentator, as if athletes are absolved of moral integrity due to higher levels of testosterone and affectionate groupies. "I wasn't raised to be this way, but I really didn't think too much about his wife and children," says one of the women involved. The public struggles to acknowledge self-evident sin—blatant misogyny, exploitation and betrayal. The taboo against being judgmental, coupled with the casual disregard for sexual boundaries, has muted outrage.

And then there is the medicalization of moral responsibility, as in "He's got issues" or "He needs treatment for sexual addiction." Adultery is so common that it lacks the indignation now only afforded to pedophilia. A marriage begun with a prenuptial agreement may only continue with a renegotiation of the contract that lessens the years from ten to seven and increases the payout in the range of $55 million. Somehow, the commodification of marriage that makes Elin the highest-paid prostitute in the world does not offend our market-saturated logic. "It's business," critics retort. No, it's marriage. Surely the expectation of failure codified in legalese becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lesson One: We have lost the courage of common sense.

The second lesson: in a hook-up culture, sex has become a tool for manipulation and exploitation. It is the lowbrow road to fame and fortune. For the women involved, sex was an afterthought to the intoxication of being associated with Tiger Woods. When the occasion presented itself to them, they simply followed a well-worn script no doubt repeated throughout their lives. Cursed with beauty in excess of wisdom, they used their sexuality to get what they wanted. Their beauty was both a source of sensual gratification and a tool to manipulate men. So what if the exploitation was mutual? For all involved, the consequences were tragic. The collateral damage is widespread. It can be no other way. The reality of moral gravity demands it. And yet the same pattern finds its way into the church. Boob jobs, pronounced cleavage and provocative dress are just as common in the church as in the cocktail lounge. Lesson Two: We teach young girls the script and they then wait for the part.

Three: Tiger's tale is classic illustration of "false masculinity," where success is defined in terms of ball fields, billfolds and bedrooms. It is identity via performance. Once Tiger had success on the golf course and all the toys money can buy, there were few avenues left to validate his identity. See Jeffrey Mark's compelling story of Coach Joe Ehrmann and The Gilman School football team in Season of Life. Ehrmann states, "Masculinity, first and foremost, ought to be defined in terms of relationships. It ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to love and be loved."

But that's not what we have in an achievement-based false masculinity. He continues, "Because there is no relational piece to it at all, all I can present to you is my façade. Here's what my external masculinity looks like. But my biggest fear is that if you ever walk around this façade, if I ever let you in past my athletic accomplishments, past my sexual feats, past my economic successes, and I let you see this 'shamed' Joey Ehrmann... my sense is that you'll recognize me for who and what I really am... and you'll walk away.... It ends up putting you in a situation where you're always hiding. You're always hiding who and what you really are. If you're hiding that, you really can't connect with anyone." Tiger may be the poster child of this pattern, but it is ubiquitous in football and golf locker rooms everywhere. It's only a mirror of disconnected masculinity. Lesson Three: Masculinity has not been defined relationally and there is a price to pay for the failure.

Last lesson: speaking of hiding—in this case, Tiger's obsession for secrecy and privacy—there is a false sense of anonymity associated with modern life. In small towns, everybody's business is everybody's business. Tiger thought he could use his money to create a public persona that insulated his private reality. It's a myth. We will all be outed. The eating disorder that we hide, the dalliance with pornography, the subtle stealing from the company, will be revealed, because we become our secrets. What we hide comes to dominate the inner recesses of our heart. In the end, we will be trapped by the lies we tell. Lesson Four: We plead privacy when we most need transparency.

An accurate assessment of human nature would make observers of this scandal anything but shocked. It's almost inevitable—for our assumptions of the good life are perfectly designed to lead to these results. They are not based in addictions, but idolatries. Tim Keller writes in his new book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters , "There is no way to challenge idols without doing cultural criticism, and there is no way to do cultural criticism without discerning and challenging idols." Play the fame game, play the sexual manipulation game, play it with a false masculinity, assume anonymity—add water and stir—and the results will be the same. Idols cannot be removed. They must be replaced.

The desire for fame that lies behind the celebrity culture is a substitute for significance and belonging in a world without God. When lives seem to lack any over-arching meaning, they seek for it through the fleeting attention paid to them by others. When it's Tiger, "just do it" seems very compelling.

But in the end, it's not about Tiger, but you and me and the culture we have created.

Topics: Culture
 

Dr. John Seel is the former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. He is currently principal at John Seel Consulting LLC, a cultural impact consulting firm specializing on millennials. He, and his wife Kathryn, attend Cresheim Valley Church and live in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.

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