Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mad Men: The sin of detraction and other honour-related issues

The post on the moral stance towards male agency in Mad Men and Breaking Bad that I promised yesterday will have to wait until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, some thoughts about Joan and the difficulty she faces. I noted yesterday that people are very harsh in their moral assessment of Don but tend to be forgiving of every else on the show for moral faults that are every bit as significant as his. We all do this, we explain away as "understandable" the moral failings of people while hating the failings of those we want to dishonour. The bottom line lesson is this: The fact that some moral failing is true of X is never good enough reason to publicly denigrate them nor is it good enough reason to judge them privately (judge not lest ...).

Here is an interesting example from a site that produces some of the best, and quite possibly the very best, Mad Men commentary out there:
At the same time, she’s dealing with a pissed-off Harry who, being Harry, can’t express a thought without offending someone; usually a woman. Again, this will be debated wildly, but we think Harry had a point about everything except how Joan got her partnership.
That is very, very close to right but not quite. Harry definitely should not have said it. He should, in fact, have said nothing at all. But Harry is absolutely correct about how Joan got her partnership. You could argue, and you would be right to do so, that Joan had more than earned her partnership in other ways but she actually got it by whoring herself out.

By analogy, image that Lisa owns a highly valued harpsichord and she has two nieces. There is Christina who wants the harpsichord because she wants the status that comes with having an instrument that famous musicians like to borrow to perform on. She doesn't play the instrument herself nor has done a thing to help her aunt care for it. Meanwhile, Lucy loves the instrument itself and played it regularly and oversaw the care of the instrument for the last thirty years while her Aunt Lisa was unable to adequately do so because of her old age. Lucy has even covered a lot of the maintenance and insurance costs out of her own pocket. By all rights, the harpsichord should go to Lucy.

Aunt Lisa, however, has made no provision in her will for passing on the harpsichord. Lucy realizing this and foreseeing a bitter fight with Lucy over it, takes advantage of her Aunt Lisa in her dotage and has her write up a codicil specifying that Lucy get the harpsichord. It's perfectly true that Lucy deserves the harpsichord but she still obtains it in a  way that is both immoral and illegal. The same is true of Joan's partnership.

Harry's moral failure was not in that what he said but the fact that he did say it. And this is wrong even if it is true. In Catholic terms, Harry commits the sin of detraction. Detraction is saying something true about someone that will hurt their reputation. It's a sin.

It's a sin that a lot of people find hard to grasp. Suppose I see Michael shoplifting. If I confront him directly and privately, tell him I know what he has done and insist that he fix the situation, that is no sin. If I alert the store detective that is no sin either for the store has a legitimate interest in stopping shoplifting and so do I as a consumer. If, however, I tell a bunch of people about it over drinks it is a sin. It makes no nevermind  if I do it to lower Michael's status and raise my own in their eyes or I if do it just because it's fun to gossip. It's a sin. A serious, mortal sin.

And that is where Harry goes wrong. Actually, it's where he goes really wrong. He was already going seriously wrong just by barging into the meeting and blurting out his frustration. He should have had a quiet meeting with Roger, Don or Bert in which he expressed his hopes and frustrations without mentioning Joan at all.

We've seen this before in Mad Men. For example, it is detraction when Peggy's sister goes to a priest and, under the guise of confessing her "concern", tries to lower Peggy in the priest's eyes by telling him about Peggy's pregnancy. Everything she says is true but that doesn't reduce the sin one tiny bit.

It's worth noting that moral self righteousness is always a component of detraction. To commit this sin is to believe in our own moral rightness.

There is a flip side to it all, by the way, and that is that there is a positive requirement as well as a negative prohibition when it comes to honour. I'm morally obliged to protect my own and other people's honour unless there is a very good reason not to. Honour means "high respect" and my caring about the honour of people I don't like is a way of loving them. And I am obliged to love people I don't like. It's not an option.

It applies, as I say, to my own honour and it is worth noting that Joan fails herself badly here. Tom and Lorenzo, whom I quoted above, bring this out nicely in their analysis of Joan's character. They note that Joan is, in many ways, an unpleasant person but that she has always had good sense about preserving her own honour. And that makes her even accepting the Jaguar deal very much out of character.
This, by the way, was why we had such a hard time believing last season that Joan would sleep with a client to get a partnership; not because she was morally opposed to it, but because everyone in the office would know and she’d be exposed in a way she never had before. Remember, people at SCDP still gossip about whether or not she and Roger had an affair, 14 years after it started; 2 years after it produced a baby. She’s good about keeping her cards close to her chest.
I'd add to that that it is also very unlike Joan to be a whore for money. We saw in her dalliance with Roger that Joan had no trouble being a secret whore for the sheer pleasure of being a secret whore. (Note to women: this is what most men want their partner to be: a woman who is willing to let herself go entirely for sexual pleasure without moral qualms when she is with him while being absolutely proper in the self she presents to the rest of the world. Most men don't have a Madonna-whore complex because they want both-and and not either-or as Freud worried.) Roger doesn't get over Joan because she was the perfect example of both-and right up until the Jaguar moment. That is what amde Joan morally superior to Jane Sterling and Megan Calvet, both of who use their sexual connections for personal gain.

(And notice how Roger seems less interested since then. If these two are going to get together, they both have something big to forgive the other for.)

This is where our modern concern about hypocrisy gets things deeply wrong and where the morality of people like Don, Roger and Joan is superior to that  of the 1960s. Everyone has things they do in the dark, as Harry distinguishes things. But it is precisely for that reason that it is less of a sin. That's just human weakness. The sin comes from not having the sense to allow what happens in Vegas to remain in Vegas.


  1. I think Tom and Lorenzo's analysis of "To Have and To Hold" is excellent, especially their treatment of Joan. They really get how she was, how she changed, and how and why she momentarily regressed.
    I'm a cradle Catholic and I never heard of the sin of detraction. "Detraction is saying something true about someone that will hurt their reputation. It's a sin." I'm thinking that this kind of thinking is what got the Church into trouble over the sexual abuse that many of the hierarchy knew was going on, concern more for the reputation of the priests than what they were doing to others.
    Nonetheless, I totally agree that Harry Crane was right when he said how Joan got her partnership, whether he should have barged into a board meeting and said it in front of everyone can be debated. However, given his undervalued status at SCDP (one can only assume because of his style or lack thereof) its understandable that he might do something like that. He is, after all, the only one at the agency who deals with television, which is the agency's future, and he does his job very well. Its interesting that Roger and Cooper gave him his full commission check for his latest project probably before they had sent out the bill. At first I thought they were going to fire him, they didn't but would have liked to, but they realize he's too valuable to them so they had to do something to placate him. What they probably don't realize is that it is precisely Harry's style which they deplore that makes him successful in dealing with the TV people.

    1. Detraction is a lot like gossip. Telling duly constituted authorities is not detraction.

      Here is an example of the difference. Suppose I know Bill has a drinking problem that he is successfully concealing.

      1. If you and I meet for coffee and I tell you about Bill's drinking just because it's something to talk about, that is detraction and a serious sin.
      2. If the school board calls me and tells me that Bill has applied to be a school bus driver and asks me if I know any reason why they shouldn't hire him then it is not detraction for me to tell them about Bill's drinking. In fact, it would be a sin for me not to tell them.

      So, no, detraction doesn't explain the sex abuse crisis.

  2. I agree with you about calling the proper authorities not being detraction, but I always thought gossip was petty and mean and served no useful purpose other than for the entertainment of those who are gossiping. And gossip could include rumor or speculation, e.g., look at how John is walking do u think he is gay? Clearly that was not Harry's intent when he made the comment about Joan, and what he said was absolutely true, and he said it to make a legitimate point. He was angry and he might have phrased it differently or more calmly, but he only addressed the assembled Board, 5 people unless I'm missing someone. So its not like he said it on the P.A. system to the entire company. I think context and motive are crucial when talking about detraction.

    1. The legitimate point Harry has to make is that he committed to this thing from the beginning and brings genuine value to the company and so should be rewarded with a partnership.

      The entirely illegitimate point he makes is that Joan whored her way into her job. That's true but illegitimate. All it achieves is to denigrate her.

      I'll have more to say about the matter in today's post but that is the genius of the Catholic church's understanding of sin. Gossip never starts with lies, rumour or speculation; it always starts with someone saying something they believe to be true. And the person saying this thing feels justified by what they are doing when they do it just as Harry does when he rages against Joan.

      (And one thing you can be sure of is that in real life he would start the gossip mill going. Everyone in that office would have been talking about it before long and they would go home and tell their families who in turn would tell .... In real life Joan's secret would be all over the city in a week.)

  3. You've convinced me about detraction, in part because of your piece above about Breaking Bad. I'm not often in this type of situation, but I was reminded of something that happened to me a few years ago. This also relates to your comments about abortion. An acquaintance of mine, and R.N. and former nun, had her daughter and toddler age grandson living with her. The daughter was never married to the boy's father, and she had substance abuse issues, though she was employed. Over dinner the mother, my friend, told me that her daughter was pregnant again by a different man, and that she had strongly advised her to terminate the pregnancy, she felt that the daughter was in no position to care for another child, and she wasn't about to assume that additional responsibility. Shortly after the daughter apparently terminated the pregnancy, though I was never told that, and she never had a new baby. This woman and I have several mutual friends, and there were many opportunities where I could have told all of them about this situation but I didn't. I just felt that this was so private and so personal, what she told me should have been told in confidence though she never asked for that. So you are right about detraction, but I still believe that the context and the motive do play a role in how greivous the sin is. In Harry's case, he sought to reinforce his legitimate point by using his illegitimate point, i.e., Joan's whoring herself out. However, by doing so he in effect was calling the others in the room pimps because they not only allowed it but encouraged it. Call me a male chauvinist but it just seems to me that they were in a position to insulate or protect her from having to do what she did, much less encourage her. So his criticism of Joan is a back-handed slam at Roger, Campbell, Cooper. The only one who told her she didn't have to do it was Draper.