A Philosopher's Blog

Weiner & Tragedy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2011
Anthony Weiner

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Congressman Anthony Weiner recently made headlines over a Tweeted photo of a groin. He denied that he had sent the photo and insisted that he had been hacked. However, his handling of certain questions led many to doubt his veracity. In a press conference on June 6, he admitted that he had sent the Tweet and that he had lied to cover this up.

The press conference was a rather interesting in four ways. First, he accepted full responsibility for his actions and did not try to shift the blame to anyone or anything else. Second, he noted that his actions were due to a weakness and flaw in his character. Third, he answered question for about thirty minutes, visibly taking a beating. Fourth, his wife was not present-which is something rather unusual when an American politician has been caught in a scandal involving a sexual element. Seeing this conference started me thinking about tragedy in the Aristotelian sense.

Briefly put, a tragedy has two main aspects: the nature of the action and the nature of the main agent. In terms of the action, a person has to go from happiness to misery via a mistake on his part. Second, the agent needs to be good, but not overly so. The fact that the downfall was due to an error on the person’s part enables people to feel fear-“there, but for the grace of God, go I.” The fact that the person is basically decent enables people to feel pity. After all, when bad things happen to wicked people, we are not generally inclined to feel for them. However, when bad things happen to decent people, this tends to elicit feelings of pity.

In Weiner’s case, he clearly has gone from happiness to misery. He has been revealed as a liar and his wife is certainly not happy with him. His chances of being re-elected have been diminished. This misery is, of course, self inflicted and the result of poor chocies: though he is married he was inappropriately  involved via Twitter and Facebook with women and when he accidentally exposed himself, he chose to lie about it.

Looking at things honestly, I think that most of us can easily imagine being in a situation somewhat like Weiner’s. After all, social media makes it very easy to communicate with people and engage in what might begin as harmless friend making that devolves into flirting. As Weiner himself pointed out, social media is not to blame for our failings-but it does provide a rather slippery social slope. Social media also provides an instantaneous way to be stupid, thus sometimes shorting out one’s better judgment. Email and blog commenting also have a similar effect: it is easy to dash off a thoughtless email or comment and then realize the full extent of the stupidity when it is too late.

When people make mistakes, especially shameful mistakes, they are rarely inclined to admit to these errors. Rather, people tend to do just what Weiner did: try to conceal the error and then resort to lying. This, as Weiner knew, merely makes things worse by compounding the original error with more poor and unethical choices.

As such, it seems quite reasonable for most of us, especially us men, to think “yes, I could have been a Weiner.” For the record, I have never sent a “junk shot” via Twitter. However, I have made decisions in life I regret and hence have some sympathy for Weiner. I do, however, have far more sympathy for his wife.

What is obviously more controversial is whether he is basically a decent man who made a mistake or not.  Obviously enough, Weiner is not morally outstanding. He was involved with women via social media in a way that he felt comfortable sending “junk shots.” He also lied to cover up his misdeeds. However, he does not seem to be a wicked man. Assuming he is not lying again, his relationships with the women allegedly did not go beyond the realm of social media. While this was hardly ethical, it was not wicked or evil. While his lying was also unethical, he did not violate his oath of office or break any laws. As such, the extent of his immorality was fairly minor-lies told to cover up something shameful and embarrassing. As lies go, his lies are rather low on the evil scale.Weiner also appeared (although it is hard to judge from a single press conference) to be sincerely repentant and remorseful for what he had done-especially the hurt he had inflicted on his wife.As such, Weiner does not seem to be a wicked man who was brought low by his wickedness. Rather, he seems to be a basically decent sort of person who chose poorly due to flaws in his character. As such, it seems reasonable to consider the situation as a minor tragedy-at least in Aristotle’s sense.

Naturally, if new information is forthcoming, my assessment might well change. If Weiner actually had “relationships” with one or more of the women or was faking his emotions during the press conference, then his status as a decent, but flawed, person would come under greater question.

In any case, Weiner is yet another example of why honesty is the best policy. Of course, an even better policy is to not do stupid stuff that one might feel tempted to lie about.

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