We can all learn from Gwyneth

The scavengers who live off the scraps of celebrity scandal will be paying particular attention to the marriage of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin over the next few weeks. Not only are the couple blessed with talent, looks and success – provocation in itself – but she has just made a statement which has caused considerable outrage in some quarters.

Prepare to be shocked. “The more I live my life, the more I learn not to judge people for what they do,” Gwyneth has said, quite openly and without apology. “I think we’re all trying to do our best but life is complicated.” As if that were not controversial enough, she added: “I know people I respect and admire and look up to who have had extra-marital affairs.”

The response to these dangerous and reckless remarks has been predictable. Famous people who express sane, reasonable views are instinctively mistrusted – we expect our celebrities to be out of touch and entertaining – and sneering reference has been made to Paltrow’s “latest flirtation with controversy”, not to mention her “superhuman compassion”.

Paltrow is, though, making a worthwhile point. It is a very contemporary habit, the need to stand in judgment over every little muddle in which a public figure finds herself or himself and draw sorrowful conclusions from them, as a vicar does in a sermon. Scandal and misadventure have always been part of the media, but the busy drawing of moral lessons, the pious scolding from the sidelines, is something new. Disapproval is to the 21st century what primness was to the Victorians.

Both, to a large extent, are propelled by sexual frustration. Prurience, today as over a century ago, tends to disguise itself as moral concern – we need to know every excitingly shocking little detail, in order to condemn it. When a photograph was published recently of a uniformed American cop having sex with a woman on the hood of her car, it was published around the world – it was funny and played to some well-worn erotic fantasies. The story accompanying the picture, though, was the scandal, the abuse of power, the controversy. The randy cop was quickly fired.

It is worth remembering who is doing the judging on these occasions. Unlike the Victorians, today’s moralists are not eminent politicians or churchmen. They are journalists.

Such is the hypocrisy when it comes to public misbehaviour that it is now taken for granted. When MPs were being pilloried for taking liberties with their allowances, the moral outrage was orchestrated by those who belonged to a profession in which, over the previous decades, the large-scale fiddling of expenses was a matter of competitive pride. Nor, for all their shrill moralising when a celebrity is caught in the wrong bed, are those who work in the media famous for their high standards of sobriety or sexual fidelity.

Here, perhaps, is the truth behind the new need to judge. Commentators scold, and readers allow themselves to be whipped into a state of excited disapproval, for reasons of guilt about their own less-than-perfect lives.

As Gwyneth Paltrow says, life can indeed be complicated. Taking the high moral ground is only worthwhile when something truly bad has been done. It is fine to be interested and excited by scandal, but why do we have to condemn quite so much? Since when have we all become so sanctimonious?

Few lives would bear the closest scrutiny day by day. Indeed, in a world more full of temptation and dodgy role-models than ever before, a bit of complication along the way may simply be a sign that you are living it to the full.

Independent, Friday 09 September 2011