Rob Ford, Berlusconi, The Crystal Methodist: why do we love scandals so much?

Article published on Dec. 2, 2013
Article published on Dec. 2, 2013

Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto recently admitted smoking crack. There were exclamations of outrage, but moral disgust was not the overarching sentiment. Many people took delight in this public figure's transgressions. Whether its crack smoking, orgies or traditional fornication, there is no denying we love a good scandal. What is it about hedonistic public figures that so delights us?

The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford un­leashed a crack-fu­elled flurry of witty head­lines in No­vem­ber when he ad­mit­ted smok­ing crack co­caine after ‘sin­cerely’ deny­ing it for months. Dis­be­lief was the unan­i­mous re­ac­tion – how can a suc­cess­ful man in a po­si­tion of power and re­spon­si­bil­ity be en­gaged in such shi­nani­gans?

In some quar­ters, this dis­be­lief was of course tinged with rage, but many peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enced dis­be­lief steeped in hi­lar­ity and even ju­bi­la­tion. We love scan­dals and that sweet sense of schaden­freude. But why? Why do so many peo­ple smile and chuckle rather than out­right con­demn­ing he­do­nis­tic pub­lic fig­ures? Lets take a look at a few EU epi­cure­ans in our search for an­swers.

Sil­vio 'Bunga Bunga' Berlus­coni

The names of epoch-mak­ing politi­cians are typ­i­cally syn­ony­mous with the move­ment they de­fined. ‘Tony Blair’ shouts New Labour, ‘Charles de Gaulle’ shouts Gaullism, ‘Abra­ham Lin­coln’ is equated with with the abo­li­tion of slav­ery. But what about Sil­vio Berlus­coni, the ‘great’ man who has dom­i­nated Ital­ian pol­i­tics for the last twenty years? Berlus­coni will be re­mem­bered first and fore­most not for any ground-break­ing poli­cies or in­tel­lec­tual schools of thought. Oh no, Berlus­coni’s name con­jures up one thing and one thing only- the Bunga Bunga par­ties.

He may look like a wax work model who could melt at any moment, but Berlus­coni’s sta­mina is truly re­mark­able. He rode out seven sex scan­dals, all of which would have ended a politi­cian’s ca­reer in other coun­tries. His Bunga Bunga par­ties are leg­endary. He di­rected hoards of pros­ti­tutes in nurse and po­lice out­fits round his man­sion like a con­cu­pis­cent con­duc­tor. His hu­mour is ac­cord­ingly li­bidi­nous. In April 2011 he joked, ‘When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30% of women said, 'Yes', while the other 70% replied, 'What, again?' The man is a dis­grace, but 29.1% still voted for him in the 2013 elec­tions.

His name fre­quently in­spires chuck­les rather than rage. Why is he so scan­de­li­cious? Psy­chi­a­trist Mas­simo Fa­gi­oli tells CNN, ‘It's a Catholic men­tal­ity. Sin at night and con­fess in the morn­ing.’ In other words, we love colos­sal scan­dals be­cause they make our own mis­de­meanours ap­pear rather minor, a peren­nial com­fort to the sin­ner in­side us. It is thus we may at­tain the moral high ground, at least in our mind.

The Crys­tal Methodist

Rev­erend Paul Flow­ers, 63, sounds like a char­ac­ter from some kind of Skins par­ody about he­do­nis­tic pen­sion­ers. After forty years work­ing as a Methodist min­is­ter, Flow­ers was in­ex­plic­a­bly ap­pointed as chair­man of the Co-op bank in Britain. In two years he sin­gle hand­edly brought the bank to its knees. He was called be­fore MPs in the Com­mons to ex­plain the havoc he wreaked, but this was only the be­gin­ning. In the few days that fol­lowed, holy fa­ther Flow­ers seems to have con­sumed his own body weight in co­caine and ke­t­a­mine. And that is no mean feat con­sid­er­ing he is mas­sively over­weight. In­deed, his age and his weight and the colos­sal quan­ti­ties of drugs he hoovered up beg the ques­tion, ‘How did his heart sur­vive the ram­pant gay or­gies?’

The Rev­erend told MPs the Co-op bank had as­sets of £3 bil­lion, when in fact the fig­ure is £47 bil­lion. Seen through the eyes of a ke­t­a­mine fiend, it seems a bank’s as­sets ap­pear dis­tant and tiny. The icing on the cake of this ex­quis­ite scan­dal? For twelve years Fa­ther Flow­ers headed up an anti-drugs char­ity with the motto, ‘Telling the truth about drugs.’

What seems to be par­tic­u­larly scan­de­li­cious about Rev­erend Flow­ers is the sheer au­dac­ity of the man. Com­plete dis­dain for au­thor­ity is some­thing we often ad­mire, even if we don’t agree with the man­ner of its man­i­fes­ta­tion. This Rev­erend ex­udes a cer­tain an­ar­chic ap­peal. Envy in­spired schaden­freude is ev­i­dently im­por­tant too. Peo­ple love to see more suc­cess­ful peo­ple fal­ter, and this 'hum­ble' rev­erend with no bank­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tions had un­doubt­edly ex­ceeded his call­ing. But above all, what seems to ap­peal is the fan­tas­ti­cal aura of this scan­dal- you sim­ply couldn't make this stuff up.

Javier Guer­rero and the Co­caine Chauf­feur

An­dalu­cia’s for­mer gen­eral di­rec­tor of work, Javier Guer­rero was given huge EU sub­si­dies to boost busi­ness and cre­ate jobs. How­ever, his job cre­ation scheme seems to have been fo­cused on the coca fields of Colom­bia rather than the Span­ish econ­omy. Guer­rero and his chauf­feur, Juan Fran­cisco Tru­jillo, re­port­edly spent €25, 000 a month on co­caine. One re­ally has to won­der, how can that much co­caine fit up a human nose? The man must be some kind of human jug­ger­naut.

Herein lies one pos­si­ble (per­haps face­tious) ex­pla­na­tion for our in­fat­u­a­tion with scan­dals – the sheer awe that cer­tain ex­ploits in­spire. This scan­dal is per­haps as much a tes­ta­ment to the re­mark­able en­durance of the human body as it is an aber­ra­tion on Spain’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape. How­ever, out­rage gives as­ton­ish­ment a run for its money here, for Spain’s eco­nomic woes are still an open sore and Guer­rero has rubbed his naughty salt in the wound. Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dean Bur­nett sug­gests the am­bi­gu­ity of scan­dals is one cause of our strange emo­tional re­ac­tions, “like a robot en­coun­ter­ing a log­i­cal para­dox.” Ad­verse to am­bi­gu­ity, we il­log­i­cally opt for strong opin­ions.

So dis­tinctly robot like in our every­day be­hav­iour and our largely un­err­ing obei­sance to su­pe­ri­ors, the great­est de­light we take in scan­dals must surely be the plea­sure we ex­pe­ri­ence at see­ing an­other robot re­ject its pro­gram­ming and put its own idio­syn­cratic de­sires be­fore the de­mands of the pow­ers that be. These scan­de­lous scoundrels serve as proxy out­lets for our own re­pressed de­sire for plea­sure.