Sleaze, St Benedict, and Us

‘Sleaze’ as a word dates only from the 1960s but the behaviour it signifies has been around much, much longer. In recent weeks the media have been relentless in their exposure of certain types of sleaze. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d like never to hear the name Harvey Weinstein again. Now we can look forward, if that is the right term, to more lurid accounts of immoral behaviour at Westminster, in business, the Church, and anywhere else you care to name.

Some people will shrug off the reports or make fun of those who allege that they have suffered from sexual harassment or abuse. Others will reflect on the allegations and perhaps think about their own conduct. One of the happier results of the #MeToo campaign has been the number of men who have been shocked into a realisation of how widespread is the problem of unwelcome sexual attention and have pledged to do what they can to ensure that it is eradicated. Of course, men are also now coming forward claiming that they, too, have been victims of harassment/abuse, and while I don’t doubt that many have, I think it remains overwhelmingly a problem for women and girls, who are often smaller and less physically strong than their assailants. What is at the root of such behaviour — apart from hormones?

I think it would be fair to say that at the root of most male on female harrassment or abuse is a lack of respect. Women don’t count. Men can say or do pretty much what they like and women will just have to put up with it. If they don’t, they are dismissed as being humourless or prudes. Such attitudes are not confined to sexual matters but extend to women’s value in the workplace (think BBC salaries), their scholarship (think Mary Beard), even their opinions on everyday matters (think how often a man will dismiss what a woman says or indulge in mansplaining).* And we are talking about the developed West here!

To St Benedict such attitudes would have been contrary to everything he believed about the respect due to an individual. In his monastery slaves and freemen served on equal terms; age or previous status was of no consequence; our rank in the monastery is determined by the order in which we came through the door. Only virtue and holiness of life single us out, and it is for the abbot to decide whether we should hold any higher place in community than that given by the date of our entry. Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 23 On Excommunication for Faults, shows what happens when all this goes haywire and the monk rebels against the community and its ethos. He is to be warned privately a couple of times, then rebuked publicly, then, if he still fails to amend, he is to be punished by excommunication— a very public form of punishment. I don’t think such a nuanced system of warning and punishment will be applied to those found guilty at the bar of public opinion, and there’s the rub.

One of the problems of dealing with sleaze or any other form of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is the fact that once the offences come to light, the media have a field-day. The individuals concerned may play to the gallery, so that those who have been hurt or wounded end up being even more hurt or wounded. Alternatively, the one at fault may be so hounded that others who are entirely innocent pay a huge price, too. How many marriages and families have been wrecked by the media spotlinght turning upon them? And today, when we talk about the media we must also add Social Media and the proliferation of quite scathing comments and aggressive remarks from the general public.

Today I shall be praying for all who have been affected by the recent allegations of sleazy behaviour, praying, too, that we may not become so morally insensitive that we accept such behaviour or dismiss it as ‘just one of those things’. St Paul talks about our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. Spend a moment or two thinking about that and it is clear why mutual respect is so important, I’d say, crucially important.

*I don’t want this to read as a rant against men! It is always difficult to express something that may be generally true but does not apply to any particular individual. I count myself blessed to know many men who are models of courtesy and kindness.