Anthony Weiner and The Court of Public Opinion

The recent hubbub surrounding Anthony Weiner’s second exposure for “sexting” is immensely difficult to write […]

Will McDavid / 8.5.13

The recent hubbub surrounding Anthony Weiner’s second exposure for “sexting” is immensely difficult to write about, but relevant. Recidivism? Check. Judgment? Check. Grace? We’ll see.

anthonyweinernewyorkercover1The media has spent a good portion of the past week trying to classify the New York mayoral candidate’s behavior. Is he a punchline? A sex addict? A narcissist? Classifications are easy, especially when they allow us to exempt ourselves. But the story clearly has broader implications, for example, the role of social media and the instantaneous affirmation we derive from it. We might look at exhibitionism as a misplaced instance of the fundamental desire to be known and loved, and the superficial acts of grace it enables. We might look at how Weiner’s acts defy categorization,  because the categories themselves are always insufficient. We might look at how all of us function, to one degree or another, under the same compulsions, how some of the ways those compulsions work themselves out are less publicly tolerable, or less harmful, than others.

Above all, the newer scandal might occasion a deeper look at the role of judgment in perpetuating recidivistic behavior, how the need for affirmation, or intimacy, is vivified and exacerbated by intense public rejection. Scandalous politicians fascinate us because we feel that, in choosing their career, they are voluntarily submitting their actions to public scrutiny. It’s tempting to neglect the role of scrutiny itself in producing unhealthy or harmful behavior. Young celebrities like Lindsay Lohan may be the most common examples of this phenomenon, but politicians are also savory fodder for our demands, because some element of us wishes them to be morally above reproach – that is, not just great negotiators or policy-makers.

I am reminded of John Winthrop famous speech about “the city on the hill” from 1630, and the influence he and his fellow Puritan had on American identity. That speech reverberates today in our desire for American moral high ground – a necessary part of which is to have our government’s elected officials display some sort of moral purity. They are our vicarious representations, the people we attach ourselves to. And when politician’s facades come a-tumblin’ down, we regret identifying with them so strongly. The people we wanted to associate with as moral paragons are the same people from whom we distance ourselves as soon as they fail to meet the Law’s standard. Our dramas of identity and self-acceptance/self-recrimination are played out at a comfortable remove from our actual lives.

goldfinger_5The messages themselves are far too graphic and vulgar to link to here, but regardless of your level of comfort/health in this particular arena, they’re impossible to read without empathy and compassion. His insecurity and unfiltered(!) need for affirmation could not possibly be palpable. It’s only once these messages are taken out of context, and Weiner is de-humanized into some abstract violator of ethics – that is, once we already give up on seeing him as a normal human being – that empathy becomes impossible. Which is great for us spectators; we don’t want empathy with a guy like this anyway.

That being said, one could hardly argue that Weiner’s actions are not tremendously harmful and disruptive. In the family, such behavior is manifestly reprehensible; as a prospective public official, perhaps some amount of the public trust was betrayed. But the news media and blog-osphere always err on the side of unequivocal condemnation – which isn’t surprising, because we’ve always erred on that side in every arena of life. In some way, this whole debacle says more about us, the spectators, than it does about him. Our favorite Nazarene expressed roughly the same sentiment in his response to a bloodthirsty public about to stone an adulterer (John 8). And yet we often assume that the Christian way forward is to condemn unequivocally, what some call taking sin seriously. If the Gospels are to be trusted, however, as authorities on how to live our lives, the logs in our own eyes deserve primary attention, even if we prefer classifying the specks in others’. Anything we can do to quarantine his actions from resonance with our own.


Alas, now I’m pointing the finger at the finger-pointers. Perhaps the only thing more annoying than a public feeding-frenzy is the myth of standing above it. And people know well that sensationalism about someone else’s deep, intractable, emotionally self-defeating problems is wrong, but that doesn’t change a thing (and never has). Our judgment is more directly rooted in self-justification than even Weiner’s need for affirmation/faux-intimacy, and thus more intractable. The world keeps moving “in appetency, on its metalled ways” (T.S. Eliot), and there’s discouragingly (but compassion-inducingly) little we can do about either Weiner’s problems or our own. Who will deliver us?!

A few thoughts to close on – first, The Atlantic:

The answers seem obvious enough. If no amount of praise or positive reinforcement can satisfy some college students, if they continually “come back for more,” it must be because they struggle with low self-worth, or what I would call a sense of basic shame. If Anthony Weiner needs continual admiration and reassurance from a variety of sexting partners, he must feel bad about himself on some level.As Nathanson has noted, a struggle with profound shame lies at the heart of a broad range of addictive behaviors such as over-eating, alcoholism and sexual compulsivity.

Sounds a good bit like a New Testament passage about “the power of sin is the Law.” But again, our desire to add shame to shame by condemning him is unavoidable, something we have no ability in ourselves to control, which itself derives from our basic shame. To close with an episode from Augustine’s Confessions:

[Augustine’s friend] before me to Rome, to study law, and there he was carried away in an extraordinary manner with an incredible eagerness after the gladiatorial shows. For, being utterly opposed to and detesting such spectacles, he was one day met by chance by various of his acquaintance and fellow-students returning from dinner, and they with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the amphitheatre, on a day of these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give my mind and lend my eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them. They hearing this, dragged him on nevertheless, desirous, perchance, to see whether he could do as he said… But he, shutting up the doors of his eyes, forbade his mind to roam abroad after such naughtiness; and would that he had shut his ears also! For, upon the fall of one in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirring him strongly, he, overcome by curiosity, and prepared as it were to despise and rise superior to it, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamour was raised, which entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of his soul, which was bold rather than valiant hitherto; and so much the weaker in that it presumed on itself, which ought to have depended on You. For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same he came in, but was one of the throng he came unto, and a true companion of those who had brought him there. Why need I say more? He looked, shouted, was excited, carried away with him the madness which would stimulate him to return, not only with those who first enticed him, but also before them, yea, and to draw in others. And from all this did Thou, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, pluck him, and taughtest him not to repose confidence in himself, but in You— but not till long after. (VI.8., from