We have discussed elsewhere the theory of outrage, as well as that of moral panic. Today, however, we have the ugly privilege of witnessing both in action, as the world turns its ungenerous back on the Duggar family.
Do you know the Duggars? Perhaps not, or perhaps you prefer not to admit it. They are that evangelical family with the reality show about their lives on TLC – the ones so prolific they seem to beggar the limits of human anatomy. Depending on which part of the country you grew up in, they will either strike you as quaint and fascinating members of an exotic tribe, or else as your insufferable next-door neighbors who knew where they were going to spend eternity -- people, that is, of whom the world definitely did not need 19 more.
I never expected to write about the Duggars on this blog, and I certainly couldn’t have predicted I would be springing to the defense of one of their members when I did. But the story one reads about them today seems an especially egregious case of outrage-mongering – and one, at that, which could damage actual Duggars' lives and reputations in the real world (not to be confused with the “reality” of their genre of television).
The article today making the rounds of Facebook and email forwards comes from Huff-Po, and the unwary might well be forgiven for taking it at its word. The headline attributes a “child molestation scandal” to the Duggars, and the writer goes on to state that 27-year-old Josh Duggar (one of the 19 – other than that I know little about him) – was “investigated for child molestation.” The parents, we are told, “basically admitted in their statement on Facebook last week that rather than turn Josh over to the police, they kept it a private family matter.” (They “basically” admitted that, eh? A guilty-looking adverb, if ever I saw one.)
The story is perfectly calibrated to press the familiar outrage buttons on social media. There is the lurid sex-crime allegation to start with, of course, and this, when attached to any celebrity, is bound to set the clicks in motion. Then there is the added frisson here of ostensible hypocrisy unmasked—the self-appointed guardians of “family values” being shown up once again as phonies. It is an easy, if insubstantial, point to win in the culture war. Of course people will believe it, and pass it along.
Thus, the world has turned against the Duggars and their son in the space of a few days. Huff-Po asserts (I guess this much can be trusted) that advertisers are dumping the program in which they star, and the parents are evidently offering to remove Josh from the roster if they can at least remain on the air. (Throwing the son overboard as ballast for their media juggernaut might seem cynical, but then, Noah’s ark wasn’t big enough to save everybody either.) I’m sure The View and Oprah have already had their say. Josh Duggar has apparently had to resign from his job because of the controversy. The world, in brief, has judged him a “child molester,” and his family as the enablers and abettors of systematic predation.
Except that it’s all bogus. Nearly everything in that Huff-Po article is wrong or at best misleading. The incidents of molestation all occurred when Josh Duggar, the “perpetrator,” was 14 or 15 years old -- oh, did we forget to mention that? He was, as his and his family’s statements have each stressed, a “young teenager” – or what we might more properly term, a child -- at the time they took place. If he can be described as a “child molester,” then, it is only by understanding the first of those two words as an adjective modifying the second. The molestation, though a terrible thing (as Duggar has emphasized himself with considerable contrition), was done by an older child to younger children, and was far less graphic than what the Huff-Po banner implies: it involved incidents of sexual “fondling” and groping, not rape, as most people would use the term. Not that the exact nature of the crime can change this fundamental and obvious fact: You cannot be a “pedophile” if you were a child yourself at the time!
In the world of moral judgments we make outside of Facebook and email forwards, most of us would interpret Josh Duggar’s groping of his sisters and several other girls as a 14-year-old as the action of a disturbed child, requiring counseling or therapeutic intervention, rather than a crime. We would think that the primary responsibility really lay with the parents to seek out some professional help for their son, in order to understand and resolve the deeper causes of a highly destructive pattern of behavior.
But then, it turns out that this is exactly what the Duggars eventually did. They also, indeed, did in fact turn at some point to the police to help them cope with what was undoubtedly an extremely painful situation for their family. So the Huff-Po’s statement that when apprised of the situation, the Duggars “kept it a private family matter,” is flatly wrong. (But they “basically admitted” this “on Facebook last week”!). And besides, if they did display some hesitation before “turn[ing] Josh over to the police,” is it really beyond our powers of imaginative sympathy to understand why parents of a troubled fourteen-year-old son might blink before shipping him to the nightmare of a juvenile lock-up?
But the adult, 27-year-old Josh, against whom no accusations have been made, let alone charged and proven, since his sixteenth birthday, will now be a “child molester” for the sake of the American media. He will be lodged, at least mentally, in the very lowest ranks of America’s pariah class -- the group our talk shows and shock jocks love to hate beyond all others, the terminal point of compassion in this punishment-happy society.
The usual complaint lodged against our reality TV culture is that it is a landscape without values, devoid of ethics – a place where glamour and money are all that count. As true as the criticism might be, however, the way in which our media first divinized and now demonizes the Duggars shows that it is also a “moral community," after its own corrupt fashion. It is a place where a very simplistic system of rewards and punishments are meted out on the basis of “good” and “bad” behavior, where group loyalties are reaffirmed and limits placed on the extent of collective sympathy-- it is a “tribal council,” if you will (remember Survivor?). As G.K. Chesterton once pointed out of the reality TV equivalent of his day – the “Penny Dreadful,” the morality of such melodramatic tales was always crystalline, for all that the genre was accused by more literate audiences at the time of being “immoral.” In fact they always portrayed good as winning out and evil being crushed under heel.
Our reality TV melodramas make their moral judgments without fair standards of evidence and proof, it is true, but they do embody a certain rough principle of equity. Most of us this culture leaves in obscurity, but those it does choose to reward with a considerable amount of fame, it will later punish with a more cataclysmic humiliation, as if to compensate for the former. As Milton once said of a different God of judgment: "Nor only dost [thou] degrade them, or remit / To life obscur'd, which were a fair dismission, / But throw'st them lower then thou didst exalt them high, / Unseemly falls in human eie, / Too grievous for the trespass or omission[.]" Such is the bizarre fate of Josh Duggar, and it has surely been "too grievous" for what he may have done as an adolescent.
But the even greater injustice of this fickle treatment is that the younger Duggars did not knowingly choose it. The blame lies with their parents, and the real crime here is that the father and mother knowingly turned their family into a media circus, of which this kind of outrage hype is the close-to-inevitable result. If we’re going to fault the Duggars, it should be for placing their own children on the altar of fame. That is the sin they committed, and which they did with full knowledge of the consequences. It hardly seems right that their son should take the fall for it.