Under the old code of behaviour, if you committed adultery you kept it discreet and people pretended not to notice. This hyprocrisy worked, says Jonathan Rauch-it discouraged infidelity while accommodating human nature. Now adulterers like Bill Clinton are legally pursued but morally excusedby Jonathan Rauch / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
A famous and prestigious company-one that you have heard of-recently named an adulterer to a very senior post. This is no ordinary adulterer; he got the other woman pregnant and then left his wife and child for her. He makes no secret of this; but he was promoted anyway.
Not many years ago we would have known how to deal with this man. People in his social circle would have been scandalised. His company would have found a reason to sideline him. He would have retained a job, probably a good one; but his life would never have been the same and-although no one would have said so-everyone would have known why.
These are the 1990s, and we are many years into the deconstruction and destruction of bourgeois social codes. As a supporter of homosexual marriage, I would be the last to call for blind obedience to social tradition. But some bourgeois conventions actually work. In fact they may be indispensable, even though they do not look good when subjected to rational scrutiny or legal challenge. The mild stigmatisation of divorce was probably useful (people could divorce, but they would not do it lightly); we may be moving back in this direction, especially where children are involved. So was the informal requirement that a boy marry the girl he got pregnant if he wanted to keep his good name. So was the shame of out-of-wedlock parenthood. So were the honour codes and rules of gentlemanliness.
Most of those Main Street codes are dead, but the adultery code lives on. The code is: if you screw around, keep it out of sight so that everybody can pretend not to notice. This convention is hypocritical, faux-moralistic, cumbersome and sometimes absurd-when, for example, everybody knows who is sleeping with whom, yet somehow the affair is still a secret. Oddly, however, the Main Street rule works-probably better than any alternative regime. It is also losing authority every day.
The recent crisis in Washington is a case in point. Politically speaking, the scandal involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was a straightforward question of lawbreaking: did the president lie under oath or encourage someone else to lie? But the affair should not be seen merely through a political lens. From a social point of view, the legal process was a direct attack on the adultery code-it insisted that the squishy hypocrisies of the bedroom…