David Letterman, on one of his recent shows, confessed to his audience that someone was trying to blackmail him because he had sex with women on his staff. The audience laughed throughout the revelation and then gave him a round of applause when he concluded. As a society, we are now amused by and apparently approving of adultery and sexual relationships between a married employer and his employees.
Systematic desensitization is a therapeutic technique used to treat a variety of fears and phobias. The client is exposed to what they fear at gradually increased levels—until they can tolerate complete exposure. It works really well. And for a close look at a person for whom the process has worked, we could all look in the mirror.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) put it this way:
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien [face],
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
Alexander Pope knew about systematic desensitization.
If you view the Letterman segment (below), you might feel, as I did, that the audience was manipulated to some extent, at least. Letterman starts by telling them that someone was trying to blackmail him for doing “terrible things.” He keeps using that term and, obviously, the audience, especially to begin with, expects that this story is going to be another of Letterman’s comic monologues. So they laugh. At one point, when Letterman explains that he had to disclose the “terrible things” he had done to a grand jury, the audience laughs and he even asks why the audience thinks that’s funny. They laugh again, supportively and in anticipation of the punch line, I suppose. When Letterman finally states that the behavior in question was having sex with some of his employees I think the mood changes a bit and the laughter is toned down for just a moment. It picks up again as Letterman cracks wise about the grand jury’s—and, he suggests, perhaps everyone’s—surprise that he is having sex at all. As he ends his story, Letterman gets warm applause. Yeah, maybe the audience was manipulated, but the crowd response is nevertheless disturbing. And does anyone really expect that Letterman’s popularity will significantly drop? One commentator suggested that in a year or so, people should expect the subject to resurface as a joke or in a top ten list.
Does it matter that we’re not as shocked as we used to be by adultery? I think Alexander Pope, at least, would say yes. And I’m with Alex. After all, adultery is certainly a vice that—considering the enormous damage it does—could certainly be characterized as a “monster of such frightful mien.” Why doesn’t it shock us and repulse us more? Systematic desensitization. Maybe—hopefully—it used to shock and horrify us. But it would be much too emotionally exhausting, not to mention naïve, to feel shock and horror every time we hear about the latest celebrity or public figure that cheated on his or her spouse.
I’m not suggesting that we try to rekindle the shock (impossible anyway, if we’ve been paying the least attention), but I think it would be good to make sure we still feel horror. Even people trying to love sinners should hate sin.