Reputation might be defined
as the claim that one can make on the goodwill
of strangers; it is what your name will mean to those who don’t know you, who spend almost
no time thinking of you. It’s what you will
get reduced to when you aren’t illuminated
by love. How your reputation is assessed depends on the extent to which you have fulfilled,
or violated, the ideals and aspirations of
your society. Most of us are properly known
to, and liked by, five to ten people. When
it comes to everyone else, reputation is what
will decide what we have been worth. The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit
Reputation can’t buy us love,
but it can provide us with those valuable
proxies: respect, honour and politeness. Those who are kind to us may not mean it, but they
are at least making an effort. Not all of
us crave equally the warmth that comes with
a good reputation. Those with a particularly strong need for applause tend to be those
with a weak sense of their own acceptability. The cheer of the crowd is asked to compensate
for an innate feeling of shame. We seek the validation of the world when we are inside
unconvinced that we are quite deserving. The more we have been humiliated, especially when
young, the more the good will of strangers
will matter; and – conversely – the more
we have tasted genuine affection, the less
interesting reputation can be.
Reputation is gossamer thin;
or like a soapy bubble or an unstable chemical
compound, some metaphor to suggest the ease with which it can be torn or destroyed. It
is so prone to disappear because it isn’t
based on knowledge or experience of one’s
deep self, it’s made up of the candyfloss
of hearsay and third hand gossip. It’s the
unconscious supposition of people who haven’t thought very deeply about who one is and have
absolutely no wish to do so either; it’s
what people who don’t care about us think
about us. This is what makes reputation so delightful when it is going our way. Our nobility
becomes part of the unthinking common-sense of the community. But this is also what makes
things so tricky when reputation falls apart. The only way in which our good name might
be rescued in the minds of others is if they gave us some thought – which is precisely
what they have never done before and won’t now begin to either.
Reputation will rise and fall according to how closely we track or depart from the ideals of our
society – and these tend to be pegged to
financial success, sexual propriety, decorum,
marriage, sobriety, the sanctity of family
and the purity of children. The more of these
ideals one flouts, the harsher will be the
penalties. Unfortunately, we are – all of
us – error prone animals or, to put it more
bluntly, idiots. We should say sorry to the
universe every day, given how we are. We’re impulsive, greedy, lustful, vain and selfish.
Which means that every year, a small but significant section of the population makes an apparently
minor mistake that causes terrible damage to others and blows up their life along the
way. Not for nothing does western civilisation have at its heart the example of Greek tragedy,
which tells us of averagely good people brought low by highly understandable, everyday kinds
of folly – for which they pay an ultimate
price. When Reputation disappearsThe whole
community hears in an instant and one is done for. The punishment may be financial or legal,
but the ultimate damage is psychological:
one becomes a pariah. In the minds of all
those who don’t think about us properly
(which is almost everyone), one is now a monster
or a numbskull. For life.From now on, we will need to be looked at through the eyes of love
before we re-emerge as in any way human, that is, deserving of even a little pity or understanding.
Only through love can we be remembered to have once been baby, who was innocent, who
struggled, and who later made mistakes from passing weakness rather than evil. Only through
love are there any other sides of the story. As a result, all those who are not our intimates
become sources of sure-fire damning judgement. We know from the outset that they will hate
or condemn us. It becomes impossible to go to a party or (even) walk down the street.
One probably has to move town. Suicidal thoughts become harder to push away. Ambitions have
to change entirely. Everything that depends on the minds of people in general is now impossible.
‘What people might think’ disappears from the calculation; it’s a foregone conclusion.
They’ll think – always – that one is
a demon. When the reputation-less rediscover
close friends and family (and they almost
always do), it isn’t coincidental or a cheap
excuse: it’s because they can see, more
clearly than ever, that these are the people,
the only people, who know them properly and can therefore examine them with any degree
of subtlety, as one might a character in a
novel. For everyone else, one has disappeared
into a single word of insult. Image result
for rings of saturn The Lack of RedemptionIn
older, more religious societies, there was
the possibility of apology before a divine
being, a period of penance and then, eventually forgiveness. But thats one of the handy mechanisms
we unknowingly dismantled when we decided that God was a fiction. We have been left
with only one tool, the legal system, which
levies fines and prison sentences, but isn’t
in the business of restoring reputation – and doesn’t get involved in most of the errors
which cause it to be lost in the first place.
There is, quite literally, in most cases,
no way to recover reputation. The sentence is life-long. We suffer also because we live
in such vast societies. Recovery of reputation might have been possible when we lived in
tribes of a hundred or so. You could go around and explain things in person, tent by tent.
No such chance when it’s a case of having a few hundred million minds to change. Life
without ReputationSo begins that peculiar
challenge, leading a life without a reputation,
a feat in its way as arduous as hanging on
to a cliff-face with bare hands in high wind.A
few moves suggest themselves. For a start, acceptance: of oneself, of the situation,
of one’s misdeeds and of the darkness. Then, the construction of a new kind of communal
life, one built around astonishing sincerity
and vulnerability. One says it like it is.
There is no need for yet more shame. A whole new set of friends is called for – before
whom one can be truly oneself, in a way one never could be before things fell apart. It
helps immensely if these friends have themselves lost reputation. Ex-convicts might be an idea.
And fallen business people and politicians. They will have a kindness to them open only
to those who have suffered infinitely for
their errors. There is only so empathetic
and thoughtful that blameless people can ever be. Animals are good too; they rarely judge.
The immense open spaces of nature offer valuable perspective, as do history books. On good
days, one feels that there might almost be
a kind of relief and freedom now that there
is nothing left to lose, and impressing the
world is – perhaps for the first time since
one was an infant – truly off the agenda.
We enjoy the particular lightness and indifference
that is the privilege of all those with a
reputational calamity to their name.Lots of
thoughts have to be avoided in order not to howl with agony. It isn’t the life anyone
would have wanted at the high water mark, but it’s a life nevertheless – and one
we should all contemplate, whatever our situation, to prepare ourselves for the day (which can’t
be guaranteed never to come) when we might be forced to walk the earth without the cloak of a reputation.
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