Beyond Buddhism, Tiger Woods has converted to another religion

Tiger Woods’s confession on Friday was a forced conversion to the Oprahite religion of emotional openness and making public one’s miseries and failings.

Much has been made of the fact that, in his mea culpa beamed around the world, Tiger Woods said he had rediscovered his childhood religion of Buddhism and hoped to relearn its lessons of restraint. This was Tiger’s “leap of faith,” said Newsweek, his very public religious conversion.

It is true that we witnessed the conversion of Tiger Woods last Friday, but it was no voluntary conversion to an old religion. Rather, this was a forced conversion to the new Oprahite religion of emotional openness and making public one’s miseries and failings.

Mr. Woods has effectively been strong-armed by the world’s media and experts into ditching his former, apparently outdated commitment to the ideals of privacy, and has been made to embrace the cult of letting it all hang out. What we witnessed on our TV screens was the end result of a global show trial, complete with the “suspect” denouncing himself and expressing self-disgust, and I for one found it unedifying.

Woods’s public apology – to his wife, his fans, and the media – came at the end of months of pressure on him to stop fantasizing that he has any right to a private life and to tell us everything about that car crash in November and his various alleged affairs. His desire to keep his troubles private, including by taking refuge on his yacht called “Privacy,” was treated as some kind of crime.

His former coach, Butch Harmon, said the public wants Woods to “stand there in front of everybody, take his medicine, be humble, be embarrassed, be humiliated, and answer the questions.” The idea that Woods had to be “humiliated” before he could move on was a recurring one. Under the headline “Tiger Woods: redemption lies with Oprah Winfrey,” a British journalist said at the end of last year that Woods must “ring Oprah and get on her sofa pronto” and “share his pain” with the public.

Experts from around the world advised (“hectored” might be a better word) Woods that only by opening up could he hope for public forgiveness. (Why Woods should seek my and your forgiveness, rather than simply his wife’s and children’s, was never made clear.)

The sports correspondent for Britain’s Mail on Sunday said in December that Woods had “better learn the US formula for public redemption,” which includes “display[ing] one’s contrition on a very public platform” and partaking in the “three A’s”: “admit, apologise, advance.” The idea that Woods might devise his own formula for resolving his personal problems, in private rather than on a very public platform, was not countenanced.

Many of the attacks on Woods, and the demands that he advertise his pain and sorrow for all the world to see, were motivated by a strange anger toward his well-known protection of his privacy. A British journalist criticized Woods for guarding “his privacy with legendary zeal.”

When Woods published a rare statement on his website in December – saying, “I am dealing with my behavior and personal failings behind closed doors with my family” – the humiliation-hungry media was outraged. One journalist said, “Woods’s right to privacy has been fatally undermined … by his hypocrisy.” Another said, sternly, that Woods has “no right to privacy,” on the basis that he is a public sportsman and has made advertisements and has therefore made himself public property.

This is a bizarre idea. Are we saying that anyone who is a prominent public figure – from politicians to actors, “it girls” to athletes – should have no unrevealed life? Such an erosion of the line between public and private, between what we do for a living and who we are with our friends and family, shows just how far the new requirement for revealing everything has gone. You can see the Oprahite dogma at work in dozens of recent scandals, from politicians like Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer, to athletes like A-Rod and Mark McGwire.

The criticism of Woods for zealously guarding his private life, and for at first refusing to do the formulaic public mea culpa that is now expected of every fallen public figure, showed what really lurked behind the Tiger-baiting of the past three months: fury over a famous man’s refusal to play by the new rules, to adhere to the new ethos of public emotionalism, to bow before the altar of publicly advertising one’s pain. Woods was clinging, for dear life, to the old-fashioned idea that a clear line should be drawn between a man’s public life and his private life, and the media could not tolerate that. 

Woods is famous for his iron will in golf tournaments. When scandal first broke, he summoned that stubbornness. “Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions,” Woods wrote on his website. 

But the media got their way. Last Friday, his capitulation was complete. After months of being ridiculed and attacked, Woods finally partook in perhaps the most widely disseminated expression of public sorrow of all time. The privacy zealot was successfully remade as an acolyte of Oprah, his mind expunged of the silly idea that he, or anyone else, should have the right to sort out his problems “behind closed doors.” There were elements of the authoritarian show trial in his mea culpa: the denunciation of the self, the promise to become a new man.

The forced conversion of Tiger Woods represents another blow to the idea of privacy. A civilized society should recognize the dividing line between a public man and his private life, because all of us need a private space in which we can develop relationships and work out who we are. The slaying of private Tiger and his rebirth as a public spectacle makes defending privacy that much harder. 

Brendan O’Neill, a journalist based in London, is the editor of spiked, an online publication.


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