Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
August 23, 2013 by Melissa Tapper Goldman
It’s been a banner month for sexting and moralizing about sexting. I offer no conclusions about Anthony Weiner’s most recent spate of online dalliances, especially (but not exclusively) since he’s not actually an elected official. But with Weiner and Spitzer entering the political arena again, we’re back to chatter on sex-related scandals. The human drama of the Weiner story is so attention-grabbing because of its extensive electronic documentation alongside its many unanswered questions, an open field ripe for our own projections. Did he betray his family? Or is it a non-traditional marriage? Speculation is cheap. But while it’s always necessary to take a stand when people’s rights may be violated, there’s another counterbalancing value to apply, and that is minding our own damn business.
I grew up in Barney Frank’s Massachusetts. If ever there was a sex scandal that transgressed the taboos of the time, Barney Frank had it cornered. Then he went on to spend 17 more fruitful and celebrated years in Congress. Like many other politicians who have successfully moved past sex scandals, Frank had developed a reservoir of goodwill through his work before the incidents. The opinions about him that mattered were the ones about his political record, not the politics of his love life. It’s easy to distract ourselves with politicians’ personal lives because that’s something we think we have in common with them, a foothold for making sense of their capacity for loyalty and common sense. That said, I’d never want to be married to a Congressman and I couldn’t begin to imagine my way into the mind of someone who would. When it comes to politicians who don’t make their careers by policing what happens in other people’s bedrooms, it’s worth inspecting the actual motivations behind our inclination to police theirs. I was shocked when Weiner stepped down. I can only assume there were circumstances beyond the aptly titled twit pics, since politicians have weathered much worse and refused to resign, even when, unlike Weiner, their deeds involved dereliction of their actual jobs.I grew up being told that America was a great place to be a Jew not because everybody here lives like Jews or shares some Jewish values, but because there are different people here with diverse ways of life. Most Jewish diaspora communities have historical memories of less hospitable host cultures. Part of the post-European specter reflects a deep concern that my rights will be taken away, particularly my right to practice my religion, but also my right to conduct my private life in a way that might not look usual from the outside. Jews are certainly not the only Americans in history to be motivated by that fear. So while I understand how other Jews can hold socially conservative views, to me it has always felt un-Jewish to hope that these values will be enforced for everyone. Because even when dominant ideas coincide with yours and you don’t have the government interfering in your private and religious affairs, it’s an unstable equilibrium. Public opinion is a fickle mistress, pardon the phrase, one I’ve never had any interest in courting. So follows the value of butting out.
Beyond never forgetting and not standing idly by while injustices are perpetrated, there was another nugget of Jewish identity wisdom that was mixed into the kool-aid of my Jewish American upbringing, for better or worse: keeping one’s head down. This might be grounded in a desire to avoid the scrutiny of anti-semitism, a futile attempt to play the “perfect victim”. Yet by nature, personally, I’m a blabbermouth. And I was also raised around the usual two Jews with three opinions and a culture full of Fockers and Buttinskys. So the value of minding my own damn business didn’t gel for me until leaving home and becoming intimately acquainted with the more staid Midwestern code of keeping one’s mouth shut, not out of indifference to wrongdoings, but out of deference to the profound limitations of what we can know about other people’s experiences, as we’re just as responsible for our assumptions as our inactions. With the allure of sex scandals, a click-based news economy is not set up to exercise this restraint, so that’s really up to us individually.
Anthony Weiner’s deeds aren’t for me to pardon or to convict. But he has requested a certain amount of our judgment by asking us to assess his worthiness for public office. Even if we’re able to bracket our judgment of his sex life, we can’t avoid judging his judgment (those of use who need to cast a vote). Hindsight has at very least demonstrated that Weiner has an abysmal sense of whom to trust. But we’re into the month of Elul, with its framework for personal atonement leading up to the High Holy Days, and I’ve been thinking about the proscriptions against bad speech and whom they’re meant for. When we sink our teeth into a juicy bit of gossip, who ultimately gets hurt by that? For whom is it not a healthy cycle?
Anthony Weiner is responsible for his own actions, and we’re responsible for what we say about them. Bringing shame on somebody through speech is a serious matter in Judaism, and we bear responsibility both for calling out unjust actions and for controlling what comes out of our mouths in gossip. We are accountable for the ripple effects of our speech even if we can’t know them. But we can know some of them. As the dust settles on the sexting scandal, we see one result, a gateway to criticism and paternalistic pity of Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, a woman who is by all accounts brilliant and able to take care of herself. Is this the legacy of our political sex scandals, an invitation to criticize women married to men who misbehave? This reads even worse when coupled with our eagerness to question the integrity of victims in sexual assault or harassment cases. When the tabloid chatter becomes an excuse to butt into the private lives of women in our most prestigious newspapers, isn’t it worth taking a moment for shutting up?
Melissa Tapper Goldman uses technology, design, media, and writing to elevate collective assets and talk back to those who have it coming. More at alliedfields.com.