What Our Obsession with the Weiner Story Reveals About Us

Rep. Anthony Weiner's tearful apology for sending revealing pictures of his chest and underwear-covered genitalia at his press conference yesterday was agonizing.


Painful for him, sure, but much more so for what it reveals about us, a nation easily captivated by sexual peccadillos and yuck-yuck wiener jokes, but otherwise somnolent about real issues crying out for our attention, as I detail in my new book, Think.

Let's be clear. Weiner didn't cheat on his wife. He didn't touch another woman, as far as we know. He didn't rob or cheat or steal. Like millions of Americans, he got frisky and sent some photos and emails to other consenting adults. Some were after he got married. A no-no, surely, between his wife and him, but none of my business, even if I were his constituent. And even if I did consider other people's consensual sex lives my business, surely this would rank as about issue # 2,467,912 on my priority list.

If you're not sexting, you're in the minority

Our news stations all led their shows with the Weiner story tonight, dressing it up as a discussion of politics and trust when in reality it was journalists' hounding him for a week over his personal behavior that led to tonight's revelations. And what were they chasing? A silly story about a grown man having a little too much fun with his camera phone -- the kind of fun many of us are hypocrites to criticize.

Let he who has never gotten frisky online cast the first stone.

In a 2008 study, thirty-three percent of young adults admitted to sending or posting nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves; 59 percent of young adults admitted to texting lewd messages. Those numbers are surely higher now that nearly everyone has a camera phone and with the explosion of Facebook and Twitter in the last three years. In an unscientific, informal poll of my middle aged women friends, married and single, 100% had engaged in "sexting."

In some parts of this country, kids as young as 15 have been prosecuted for kiddie porn for sending pictures of their own body parts to one another. One in five of them does it. They shouldn't, of course, mainly because other kids blast the photo around and humiliate them, and bullying results. But snapping photos of oneself should be no more a crime than mooning or cursing or fart jokes -- it's just dopey adolescent stuff. Is there is a bigger waste of prosecutorial time than investigating our own kids for being kids? Just as the Weiner story is a colossal waste of media time.

He's doing what most of us have done, kids to old folks, at one time or another, usually shortly after we discover how to hold our arm out and point the iPhone at ourselves. Why? Because we're dumb humans. Same reason we cheat on diets, cross on a red light, lose patience with our kids, smoke. We shouldn't do any of these things. But we do. And when we do, it doesn't undercut our life's work, and it doesn't merit reporting by our top journalists so breathless one might thing an asteroid is speeding towards earth.

"It's the cover-up" -- spare me

"Oh, but it's the lying!" some say. And I say journalists should aim higher than asking "is that your erection?" and "is that your underwear?" When they insist on answers to those questions, normal human beings are going to lie. And that doesn't make a non-story a story.

The fallout from our obsession with our leaders' private lives

How many imperfect but smart, qualified people decided today they could never run for public office?

How many worthy news stories got killed to make space for endless replays of Weiner's apology?

What is getting crowded out when we dumb down our news for the sex story du jour?

Networks have limited time for news, and we the public have even less attention for it. It's bad enough that most of the college women I surveyed recently can name more Kardashians than wars we're in. Libraries and battered women's shelters are closing; access to birth control is getting tightened; our kids' school years are getting cut shorter, as we get less competitive in the world. So let's cut to the chase on what really matters in our communities, our country, our planet.

If only our news networks led with what matters: the three million women and girls who are currently enslaved in third world brothels -- enslaved, literally, beaten, raped, drugged, not permitted to leave unless someone "buys" their freedom. The eight thousand children who died today largely of preventable diseases like malaria, and what's working to help them. The mounting scientific evidence that climate change is shaping up to be the worst ecological and humanitarian disaster in human history.

What would our news look like if we all woke up and decided we don't care about the sex lives of politicians and celebrities? That we were done with sanctimony? That we demanded our media focus on what matters?

Think.

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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.