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Nick Spencer reflects on the moral context of the Presidents Club scandal.
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What elevates the grubby goings on of The Presidents Club, recently exposed by the Financial Times, from the other stories of powerful men sexually abusing vulnerable women, with which we have become depressingly familiar of late, is its moral context.
The event at which dozens of young women were objectified, groped, propositioned, and demeaned was a charity dinner, fund–raising from the rich to give to the poor and needy. However little you might personally pay for the pleasure of discussing Brexit with Boris Johnson and Ian Botham over dinner, some people, it seems, are willing to fork out considerable sums. Ditto for nights at a Soho strip club (another of the lots) and for a course of plastic surgery accompanied by the nauseous invitation to “Add spice to your wife”.
The Dorchester hotel has protested innocence, insisting that it had a zero–tolerance policy regarding harassment of guests or employees, presumably suspended for the night. Celebrities have scuttled for excuses, compere David Walliams tweeting that he was shocked at the reports of what went on, strangely surprised that an all–male black tie event “hosted” by dozens of attractive women wearing near identical skimpy black dresses who paraded across the stage before going to their assigned tables to serve men who were bidding for strip club evenings and plastic surgery could be in any way seedy or suspicious. And the Presidents Club has closed down, fearing the mother of all PR hangovers.
The darkness of this story shines a light on who we are and how we think. More precisely, it shows that however much we profess the kind of utilitarianism and moral relativism that underpins and justifies our society’s dominant liberalism, it doesn’t satisfy.
First, the utilitarianism. Surely a greater good was being served by this whole affair? As Ms Dandridge of Artista, the agency involved in the event, stated: “This is a really important charity fundraising event that has been running for 33 years and raises huge amounts of money for disadvantaged and underprivileged children’s charities.” Millions, it appears. Surely a bit of slap and tickle is a small enough price to pay for helping hundreds of children escape poverty and cancer?
It isn’t, and we know it isn’t. The greater good, even if it is quantifiable, doesn’t justify demeaning people, treating them as if they were things, objects of sexual desire, manipulable, disposable. The moral outrage this exposé has generated reveals where our heart is, even if our head isn’t with it.
Ah, but here comes the cavalry. Moral relativism. It’d be OK if the young women had chosen to be there and were fine with all the groping. Indeed, that it precisely what Madison Marriage, the FT journalist who revealed the whole seedy affair, argued. “If you want to run an event where women are voluntarily walking in there in the knowledge that they will be groped, then fine, make that clear in the hiring process.” After all, as she said, “plenty of women genuinely enjoy it.”
The real problem therefore, according to this reasoning, was what went on “[was not] made clear and there were plenty of women who had no idea what they were letting themselves in for.” In other words, the red line that these drunken men’s hands crossed was not the hem–line but the line of choice. What was outraged was women’s will, not their bodies.
This is the default argument today, but it is not good enough. It is 50–Shades morality: it’s fine for people to be objectified, groped, abused, hit, dominated, enslaved – just as long as they are OK with it. The view effectively empties any and every act of its moral content, relocating the ethical weight to the realm of personal judgement. Nothing is good or bad. We only think it is. Thus, the famous contortions over consensual cannibalism: is it OK to eat someone if they want to be eaten (not, I fear, a theoretical question)? And the ineffectiveness of arguments against suicide: if I want to end my life what right have you to stop me? And the conceit of consensual slavery behind the 2016 Booker winner novel, The Sellout: if I choose subjugation, who are you to liberate me? Anything goes if we’re happy with it going.
Except that we’re not. We see this better when we think about other people than when we think about ourselves. After all, when we want to do something, we’re pretty adept at moulding our moral arguments around our act of will so that they end up justifying it. But when it comes to those we love, and regard as persons in all their dignity, vulnerability and capacity for transcendence, we are much more reluctant. Your daughter comes to you and tells you she is taking the Presidents Club gig because she’s fine with having drunk strangers put their hands up her skirt. Or your son tells you that can’t see any purpose or meaning to his life anymore and wants to book a one–way ticket to Dignitas. Or your sister comes to you and tells you that she’s decided to sell her kidney so her and her partner can enjoy the cruise they’ve always wanted to go on. You are unlikely to shrug your shoulders and say “that’s fine”.
Drunk, rich men ogling, prodding, groping, humiliating women is not made right because they donate large sums of money to charity to do so. And it is not made right because some women say they like them doing that. It is simply wrong because human beings have a dignity that should preclude such behaviour. We bear the image of God (however fractured), an image of such love and self–giving that to treat it (and us) as anything less is an act of sacrilege.
That is not a fashionable thing to say. But our reaction to this grubby story suggests that it might still be a fashionable thing to think.
Image from wikimedia available in the public domain
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion
Posted 25 January 2018
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.