Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski: Are they tarred forever?

In an ever-more interconnected world, finding common ground on morals is difficult, meaning would-be pariahs like Mel Gibson or Roman Polanski meet with only scattered and ephemeral outrage.

Laurent Cipriani/AP/File
Director Roman Polanski walks on the balcony of his chalet, where he has been under house arrest, in Gstaad, Switzerland, on April 24.

The one-two celebrity scandal update on Mel Gibson and director Roman Polanski – in which Mr. Gibson is being tarred as a pariah for his abusive language while Mr. Polanski, a self-confessed child molester, has been freed by Swiss authorities – points to what everyone from public relations specialists to religious leaders and academics call an increasingly loose moral terrain.

Today’s pariah is tomorrow’s successful artist, politician, or even corporation, and in fact, the very notion of a pariah or social outcast itself may be disappearing. “The idea of a pariah suggests uniform community standards we all agree upon,” says Alan Wolfe, author of Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice.” With a world of increasingly interconnected value systems and cultural beliefs, that sense of uniform moral clarity is fast disappearing. “We may be moving into the era of temporary pariah status, at the most,” he says.

Family counselor and author of 22 books on spirituality in modern life, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach calls this a time of “valuelessness,” one in which the only shared value is winning. “When kids cheat on tests these days, the message they get is not that it’s bad to cheat, but that it’s bad to do badly on the test,” he says, pointing out what he considers the bottom line in a competitive, consumer culture. “The only thing we punish now is failure.”

Rabbi Boteach has counseled numerous celebrities, including Michael Jackson and Lindsay Lohan, and says that it is the height of Hollywood hypocrisy to dub Mr. Gibson a pariah at this point in his career, when he suggests the actor/director created what he calls a monument to anti-semitism years ago with his runaway hit, “The Passion of the Christ,” and was subsequently shown in the press to have repeatedly made anti-semitic comments. “Where were they back then?” he asks, adding that the only reason for the current shunning is that Gibson’s career is in a serious slump.

The threshold for even “pariah-for-a-day” status is getting lower with every scandal, says PR and reputation expert Adam Kluger. But there is no guarantee of absolution or condemnation for any given offense, he points out. “It is a mixture of many factors such as likability, past track record, and the seriousness of the deed,” he says. Today’s public figures, whether athletes, movie stars or politicians, have the added burden of zero privacy. “Most of us have done or said things we aren’t proud of, but we don’t have to see them going viral all over the Internet and then edited and mashed up with the worst parts played over and over,” he says. This, of course, is aside from the very real fact that in the entertainment world, a “bad boy” image is often good for a career.

The media’s role is fueling a downward spiral in shared moral values, says Walter Guarino, strategic communication professor at Seton Hall University and president of SGW Advertising Agency. “Sensationalism may have been upgraded in order to enhance sales,” he writes in an email, adding, “with the speed of online news, bad news travels faster than ever,” pointing to the ratings value of the recorded Mel Gibson phone call.

“The line does get fuzzy about who decides who becomes a social outcast," says Mr. Kluger. "It usually revolves around the degree of criminality we as a society assign to each individual. If an Olympic athlete smokes pot, we'll forgive him. But I don't think Roman Polanski will ever have an image other than what he has now,” he adds.

While he would not have signed a petition in support of Roman Polanski as many big Hollywood names did, Mr. Wolfe says – “that is one act that is heinous and beyond the pale,” he says – he points out that the current consumer culture, “is one of forgiveness.” Even the Catholic church is not so quick to excommunicate people these days, because “a consumer culture needs customers.” Beyond that, he points to such thorny problems as the Hollywood blacklist, a postwar period in which many careers were ruined based on rumors and speculation. “While it is a good thing to have moral boundaries, there is always the danger of getting it wrong and condemning an innocent person.”


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