On Anthony Weiner: Acclimating to Deception

FILE: NYC Mayoral Candidate Anthony Weiner Confirms Newly Released Explicit Messages

The following post reflects on Professor Dan Ariely’s Zeitgeist talk (below), and on recent events regarding mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal (Part II).

This talk is fascinating. But the theory that considering one’s morality decreases immorality (in the immediate term) clearly doesn’t apply to Anthony Weiner. It in fact doesn’t apply to many public figures.

So I wonder if, in part, it’s also about the frequency at which our daily lives – personal and professional – require us to take on half-truths and embody roles that require performance. The whole idea here is that people acclimate. We acclimate to systems that implicitly – by flaw of structure – permit cheating. The result of that acclimation is an increased frequency of cheating. But the average person might not be forced to reconcile with their own morality on a daily basis. That ‘reset’ button comes into play when they are – implicitly or explicitly – asked to examine who they are, what they believe and how they have behaved. The average person isn’t often asked those hard-hitting questions about who they are, what they believe, and how they have behaved. The average person doesn’t have to acclimate to these questions in ways that deplete the meaning and reflection behind their response.

Public figures do.

If your life is about selling an image, and about answering hard-hitting questions regarding who you are, what you believe and how you have behaved – on an hourly basis! – then perhaps what you acclimate to is the rote behavior of performing morality without really reflecting on what it means. You can look people in the eye and consider yourself a better father and a better husband even while sexting on the side, because part of your job (or how you’ve conceived of it) is to look people in the eye – every day! – and speak in half-truths and political code. For many public figures, reciting ethics while behaving unethically has become the rule rather than the exception. It’s easy to think of these celebrities and politicians as sociopathic, but in truth, the work of maintaining an image (in a society that demands perfection) absolutely involves the ability to lie without remorse. It’s not about where you start – it’s about the (implied) demands of a job that lead you there regardless.

This is not to excuse bad behavior. It is not to excuse deception. But context is key. We have indeed created a system where truth is asked for but not valued – think of how often we ask the average person to act professionally in ways that go against their fundamental personality. We are asking people to perform, and to become so familiar with their performance that they – and we – mistake it for truth. We are asking for lies and half-truths, and we are okay with them so long as no one bursts the bubble. Multiply this kind of request by a million pairs of judging eyes, and you have an inkling of what it means to be professionally famous. Being in the public eye means performing, and getting completely used to one’s own performance. Just don’t burst the bubble. We won’t forgive you for that.

Context is key. The ‘reset’ button works because these moments of requested reflection happen infrequently. We build tolerance to all types of stimuli – why should moral stimuli be any different? It’s probably naive to believe that asking a politician to discuss his morality will rock his foundation. In all likelihood, he’s been reciting his response often enough and for so long that what you think is a moment of reflection is really – for him – a moment of recitation. One’s context will decide whether speaking about morality actually involves any consideration.

And so, the missing piece – at least in this presentation – is that what it takes to reduce immoral behavior involves systems that can call out our impulses in unpredictable ways, such that every instance we have to reflect interrupts what we have acclimated to doing in the day-to-day. Such that our response involves active thinking rather than rote response. We need to think about society itself (which implicates us all) as creating systems that allow people to acclimate to bold-faced deception. As we (rightfully) tire of Weiner’s hypocrisies and retro-fitted apologies, as we (rightfully) dismiss him from mind and sight, let’s also ponder the larger and tougher questions: How have we, collectively, made it possible and even necessary for public figures to conceal, perform, and lie? In what ways do we imply that we want to be deceived?

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3 thoughts on “On Anthony Weiner: Acclimating to Deception

  1. If we were really acclimating to deception Rep. Weiner wouldn’t have had to resign in the first place. When it comes to sex we’re still six year olds who can’t handle the idea of someone posting pictures of his dick in his down time.

    In regards to your broader question about the public making it necessary to deceive – of course, because we (“we” meaning the 90 percent of voters who don’t have even a basic grasp of the issues) want the impossible, and we punish politicians who tell us the truth (e.g., Walter Mondale for President, 1984). We want tax cuts and spending increases and a balanced budget, and if a politician dares to nervously peep about how that won’t work, we turn to the other guy who is handing out free unicorns and rainbows. Seriously needed electoral reforms such as publicly-financed campaigns notwithstanding, in a democracy the politicians are only going to be as good as the people who elect them to office. If you’re looking for the source of deception and hypocrisy in government, start with the voters.

    • I haven’t at all argued that we acclimate to deception when it is revealed to us. The opposite. I said we would never forgive those who have deceived us when the bubble is burst, remember?

      What I am arguing is that people acclimate to what predictably happens. To what is systemically allowed or even demanded. So, the central point of this piece is to say that public figures acclimate to the idea that THEY HAVE TO LIE. It begins small, such as acclimating to the maintenance of a public image (performance). Still, if you spend enough of your life trying to appear authentically as something you aren’t, you actually acclimate to the daily practice of hypocrisy.

      Ariely hypothesizes that asking politicians to routinely confess would lessen immoral activity — I think he may have missed a key lever in human behavior: It is routine that allows us to acclimate. It terrifies people to consider their own morality when we ask them to do it sparingly and unpredictably. When we aren’t ALWAYS asking them to consider it. Our expectation of public figures is rather different. We have created a system and culture that demands for perfection from our leaders (and often from all public figures). They are always “considering their own morality” in ways that involve recitation of an identity rather than real reflection upon it. Our very expectation that they will be superhuman means their job (in large part) becomes about deception. Becomes about pretending to be perfectly moral people with unfailing capacities to make absolutely correct decisions. We allow for them to acclimate to the act of deceiving, because we routinely refuse to accept whole truths.

      (Though, in an age where everyone lives somewhat publicly — consider Facebook, Twitter and this very blog (for example) — the average person begins to routinely live like a public figure. To routinely uphold personas in professional and digital realms.)

      But I am not at all blaming the voter, as you have done. I think people are all rational actors, and most behave in ways that are allowed by the systems within which the operate. Voters aren’t the sole gatekeepers of this system. Everyone is — from the politician who indulges our appetite for concealed deception to the voter who may not realize that he has implicitly asked to be deceived. I’m not interested in blame at all. I’m interested in conscious reflection and overhaul. That demands change from everyone, and not just from those who vote.

  2. First off, you make some good points. I understand that you are using the Weiner situation as a prompt, but he really never should have resigned. He should have stuck to his guns. What he did is not something relevant to his job as a politician. It is quite irrelevant, and I wish him and other good-hearted politicians would actually use that word once and a while, rather than pandering to the hyper-personal, sexual curiosity of a sick nation of peeping toms. You can blame the voter as much as you can blame the Puritans and the Ad Council and the MPAA and the FTC and the churches and the newspapers and the politicians themselves.

    They’re all to blame for this culture, for lack of a better word. It was once important for a public figure to have integrity and honesty. They too often take it for granted that they are what they say they are. It seems that they do have to lie, and that is the problem. There’s only one way around that: don’t believe what they say. Believe what they do. Believe in results. Let the lies go in one ear and out the other. And if you need to listen to them, and we often must, EMOTION is the telling factor. Watching John Boehner on CSPAN the other day solidified this again for me. When talking on an extremely pressing topic, there was not one iota of emotion. He had no sense of urgency. Some would take that to mean he is a lizard-man. Some would think he’s just a boring guy. Too often, it means that they “don’t believe what they are saying”, and that the words on that page are filler for the time spent speaking publicly. He and many others just “put in their time”, and go home to comfort. Sad for them…

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