Anthony Weiner is in the news again after a sexting scandal in 2011 forced Weiner to resign from Congress. Weiner has recently arrived back on the political scene in an effort to run for New York City mayor. However, after only a few months on the campaign trail, evidence of a new sexting encounter with three additional women has emerged. This means the media and the folks around the water cooler are back to talking about Weiner; Weiner puns, the topic of social media and responsibility, wives and their loyalty, recklessness, and sex, sex, and more sex are the topics at hand. With all that's going on in the world, it leads me to wonder why we as a society are so intrigued by sex scandals?
In the last few years we've witnessed the media outlets' obsession with former South Carolina Governor (now Congressman) Mark Sanford's disappearance to be with his mistress. Let's not forget the former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey's gay sex scandal. I remember being in college and not being able to watch TV without hearing about the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sex scandals seem to be the ultimate drama and we follow them with as much intensity and opinion as a Shonda Rhimes series. But we have no Olivia Pope justification for watching every episode, so why do real-life political sex scandals interest us so much? After all, politicians themselves are not really that interesting.
Some may suggest that the answer to this question lies in the fact that we, as a nation, are obsessed with sex. Sex is on our TVs, billboards, and internet. Why wouldn't we want to pay attention to it when it is manifested in the real world for all of us to see? Another may suggest that we like to see characters fall. Since the days of Shakespeare, tragedies have been an integral form of entertainment. Though these two things may play a part, I think the answer goes much deeper. I believe we are intrigued by sex scandals because of what they do for us and not just because of what they reveal about others.
To put it frankly, sex scandals make us feel better about ourselves. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argues that in order to be happy (flourish is a better term) in life, one ought to be virtuous. For Aristotle this virtue can only come about through moral habit and intellectual training. But these days, for some of us, happiness doesn't come from the Aristotelian concept of doing good, but from watching others do so bad. I call this the moral superiority syndrome.
As a human, I lay witness to the claim that we love to divide ourselves into groups with specific identities. Throughout history we have boosted our own identity and self-worth by how we negatively view those outside of our group (i.e. white supremacy). The French philosopher Michel Foucault made an observation about society's biopolitical tendencies. By this he meant that society places people in two different groups: one group is considered superior and moral while the other is labeled the subrace with immoral characteristics. I believe this process is what happens when we become an obsessed audience to sex scandals.
When we read headlines, for example, that describe Weiner as the man with the "strange addiction," we have the tendency to look at him as the "other" and therefore begin to feel morally better about our own lives. We give our moral lives a gold star simply because we think, we are not like that guy who not only has that strange addiction but who cannot learn from his mistakes.
When we define a person as the other that dwells in strange behaviors, we then also can fall into the trap of viewing ourselves more highly in light of the marginalized individual. They become "the evil one," whereas we may occasionally just do bad things. They are "the perverts" where we just think perverted thoughts. They are "out of control," we just can't say no sometimes. We begin to think of ourselves as morally superior all because "we are not like that guy." (I use guy because it's male politicians 99.9 percent of the time who fall victim to sex scandals while in power. The reason why should be the subject for another discussion.)
With each rebuke or judgment of that person's past failure, we raise ourselves from the dirt we once played in and into the heavens of ethical superiority. Have you ever wondered why other flawed people (who have yet to be exposed) make such strong statements about those who have been exposed? It is because in doing so; they feel morally superior to the disgraced. It's as if, someone else's failures have just made their failures magically disappear.
It is for this reason that so many of us watch TV and surf the Internet to see who has most recently been found out. We watch not because we love politics so much but because watching and judging the downfall of others allow us to view ourselves as morally superior individuals. Our own morality becomes uplifted at the expense of politicians who fall to sex scandals, or any other person who makes questionable decisions that become publicly exposed. This is not only a psychological delusion on behalf of the self-ascribed "morally superior" person, but it's an epistemological and moral failure. Why?
The reality is that we all have skeletons in and outside of our closets. What we should be obsessed about is not how much dirt is under politicians' feet and on their hands when they enter the bedroom or stand in front of their cellphones, while also boosting our egos as a result. Rather we should spend our time cleaning up our own mess. Getting pleasure from the failures of others may be a lot easier than working on our own moral development, but it should never be a substitute for it.