Long before his sex scandal took over the front pages, every Swede knew Paolo Roberto.
The son of an Italian father and Swedish mother, Roberto gained some notoriety in his teens as a street fighter, eventually earning a place on the police's national list of "10 most dangerous youths'. After turning things around following a lead role in a movie drama loosely based on his teens, Roberto would also earn a place in Swedish boxing history after two world championship title fights. He would ultimately become a national household name after retiring from the ring, thanks to a successful career as a cookbook author, TV personality, entrepreneur and occasional actor (he again played himself in the 2009 film adaption of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire).
And so everything turned again on May 15 when Stockholm police made the bust of the year. There he was, the 51-year-old former welterweight: caught on the bed— as the Swedish saying goes — as he walked out of the brothel with a four-man police squad waiting to take him away.
Would your God actually burn me?
For a Swedish-born spectator following from afar, there has been something disturbing about seeing a virtual mob at its most self-certain, vile and attuned. After all, there are so few things we seem able to agree on these days. But Sweden has remained united on the topic of Paolo: After spending 30 minutes with a prostitute, he was fired from the restaurant franchise he'd been running, he was bought out from his Italian food brand ($12), his ex-wife ditched him as partner in their entertainment studio, TV4 dropped him. Knock out.
This is all business of course: There's no marketing case for slapping a sex buyer's face on a can of tomato sauce. But as the denunciations continue to pour in on social media and in national newspaper columns, I can't help but ask myself a question far from the realm of business: Is there not a case for forgiveness?
The first time I made such a plea, the charge was simple (non-remunerative) fornication, with my own poor soul hanging in the balance. "Would your God actually burn me?" My deeply Christian high school classmate answered without a pause: "Absolut."
Roberto earned a place in Swedish boxing history after a youth as a street brawler — Photo: Paolo Roberto/Instagram
Burning eternally for such a brief event seemed to me somewhere just passed obscene. Yet in the years since much of our lives were moved online, it seems such unforgiving instincts have become our daily bread. I'll borrow from a friend of mine — once something of an internet troll but now a Facebook defector and licensed yogi — who referred to the hatred and contempt that permeates virtual debates as "online road rage," where we project the worst possible image onto any passing interlocutor, or transgressor.
If we continue to shame others, we strip them of the ability to take on guilt.
And so after Paolo went on air the day following the bust, describing his crime as the most ‘despicable thing you can do to another person," the tabloids diligently instructed to not accept his apologies and that he's not a victim. When he days later appeared on Instagram wearing training gear with the post's caption reading: "Time to pick up the pieces from a wrecked life," this ostensibly premature attempt at recovery courted so much opprobrium he soon deleted the post.
So what's at stake in this renaissance of punitive moralism? Last week I was talking about it by phone with my dad … who's also a Lutheran priest. I'd remembered his response 15 years ago to that high school classmate in southern Sweden, advising me not to waste my time arguing with fundamentalists who are, by definition, void of self-reflection. But about this new tendency for publicly shaming that's no longer reserved for religious fanatics or your scary math teacher, he said the harm runs even deeper: The broader problem is that if we continue to shame others, we strip them of the ability to take on guilt, which is the definition of goodness.
There is of course that spiritual element, but our shaming and canceling culture also has far-reaching social ramifications. Many of us believed that Donald Trump's run for the presidency would reach a definite end after the phrase "Grab her by the pussy" appeared in our news feeds. But this vulgar misogyny didn't put a dent in his popularity anymore than did his mocking of a disabled New York Times reporter. In a world where shame and shaming is infecting all of society, the ones who stand to benefit most are the shameless.