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Theos Team Blog

Can You Separate Public from Private?

22nd November 2011

Italy recently waved goodbye to the loose living showman Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. It was a sad day for the tabloids – for years Burlusconi had generously provided them with headlines about his playboy lifestyle – but an ambiguous one for Italian voters.

His demise was brought about not by his rejection at the ballot box, but by the inability of the bond markets to believe his assurances that his government could act decisively to deal with Italy’s crippling levels of national debt. It’s not impossible to think of politicians, past and present, who have managed to retain a level political credibility while their private life has been marked by infidelity (Clinton, Kennedy), but it would be hard to argue that Burlusconi’s fall was not at least partially down to behavioural flaws. Leaving aside the accusations of corruption and illegality, the fact that he was more interested in ‘bunga bunga’ parties than bond markets put an end to his premiership.

He is only one example of a public figure having had their dirty laundry frequently hung out to dry by the press. Most of us gawp at scandalous stories with a morbid curiosity, confirming the biblical proverb that ‘gossip is sweet to taste’. But beneath this ignoble love of sweet gossip, there is a more serious issue. 

If someone displays questionable quality or habit outside of work – infidelity, alcohol of drug misuse, irrational bouts of rage or anger – then does that affect how they do their job? The popular answer would be ‘no’, or at least not if they’re not breaking the law. People are surely entitled to a private life, free from the intrusion of the press and the judgement of the public. But the car-crash end to Burlusconi’s premiership is a reminder that such a clear distinction cannot always be drawn. 

In September this year the General Teaching Council allowed Benedict Garrett (aka Jonny Anglais) to return to teaching after a year of suspension. Garrett, a London based secondary school teacher of Personal Social and Health Education, had been supplementing his income by working as a stripper and porn actor. He successfully appealed against his suspension of the grounds that his actions would not "undermine public trust and confidence" in the teaching profession.

He defends his actions by first making the highly debatable point that pornography is not as destructive as we think it to be, and secondly (almost in contradiction to his first point) that since we have no problem with teachers who practice other types of destructive behaviour; smoking, drinking, over-eating – why then make a distinction when it comes to matters of the flesh? One obvious answer may lie in the fact that other teachers with destructive habits do not work in the industry that promotes them.

No doubt it’s a very convenient idea to have separate parts of our lives with distinct and impermeable membranes; one for work, one for family and one for that bête noir that we keep on the down low. But such a clean and optimistic notion pays no attention to the experience of being human. People are messy, and our psychology and emotional make up is heavily influenced by our actions. Indeed there is good scientific evidence to suggest that our brain rewires itself to suit our actions. 

In his book ‘Desiring the Kingdom’, James K. Smith makes the point that orthodoxy i.e. head knowledge, does not necessarily lead to orthopraxy – behaviour in line with orthodox belief. We are more influenced by what we do than what we think or say – our bodies are not mere vessels for our brains, but form our identity. This is why we are right to be suspicious of philandering politicians. A recent poll conducted by Theos discovered that the just over half the public believe that marital unfaithfulness is a measure of personal dishonesty, and therefore brings into question professional ability.

Whether or not it is morally wrong to have a teacher moonlighting as a porn-star, or a monogamously challenged politician is not the issue here. Rather the question is, is it ever possible to sustain the distinctions between separate subdivisions of compartmentalised lives? Jonny Anglais can’t at once be teaching the next generation about respecting each other in relationships, while working in an industry that turns people into sex objects. Burlusconi can’t at once be making binding promises in his public capacity while simultaneously breaking the binding promises made in ‘private’.

Kenny Primrose has recently completed an internship at Theos, and is about to take up a position teaching Theology and Philosophy at Sherbourne College, Dorset.

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