Dear Dr. Brian,
I’ve been meaning to ask you why you feel voters are able to tolerate and forgive the behavior of [New York City Mayoral Candidate Anthony] Weiner so easily? I wouldn’t care if he and I agreed about every single issue under the sun…the truth is, at the very least, his actions indicate selfishness, and a complete lack of self-control and good judgment, and that is a watered down assessment…and how could “being in a tough spot” in your marriage even begin to justify/explain running down any willing woman of questionable character on the Internet? How does this guy think we should accept that as an excuse? This is complete insanity to me.
Nonplussed in North Carolina
Dear Nonplussed in North Carolina,
Great question, and as you aptly noted, it doesn’t really matter what a politician says he/she will do if you can’t trust him/her. I think that there are many people who believe that a politician can be profoundly dishonest and/or can exercise profoundly poor judgment in his/her personal life, yet be completely honest and exercise only good judgment in his/her professional life. I know that this belief has been around for a long time, but in my opinion, it’s generally an inaccurate and dangerous belief. If someone’s profoundly dishonest and/or exercises profoundly poor judgment in one sphere of life, it’s far safer to expect his/her dishonesty and/or poor judgment to generalize to other spheres of life.
I also think that over the past few decades, many Americans have come to believe in “nonjudgmentalism” as a virtue. Not only do they seem to believe that they have no right to make judgments about others’ behavior (sometimes even others who’ve vowed to behave honorably toward them, e.g. spouses and public servants), but they also seem to believe that they’re somehow better people if they don’t judge. In addition, I think there’s an expectation – that’s conscious for some and subconscious for many – of reciprocal nonjudgmentalism, an expectation that if one doesn’t judge others’ behavior, then his/her behavior won’t be judged. (And it doesn’t help that there’s been an uptick in many forms of bad behavior since the 1960’s, when many Baby Boomers started to eschew the values and virtues espoused by their Greatest-Generation parents, e.g., “We don’t need to stay married, or get married, or stay clean and sober, or live within our means, or … .” Specifically to your question, so many Americans have, sadly, been unfaithful to their own spouses that, unless they’re huge hypocrites, they really can’t condemn the behavior of a guy like Weiner without condemning their own behavior).
In my opinion, however, the belief in nonjudgmentalism as a virtue is another generally inaccurate and dangerous belief. Our nation’s Founding Fathers understood that we’d never be able to (nor would we want to) put enough police officers on our streets to make the primary extrinsic force discouraging bad behavior be the law/government. They understood that instead, the primary extrinsic force discouraging bad behavior, in a healthy society, would be the disdain of one’s fellow citizens. Unfortunately, I believe that in recent decades, our society has become rather unhealthy, morally speaking. Yes, extreme judgments about personal behavior can be unhealthy, too, but in our haste to be nonjudgmental, I believe that we’ve reduced or removed social stigmas (e.g. the infidelity stigma) and absolved people (e.g. cheaters) of shame and guilt which were actually helpful to individuals, families, communities, and the nation.
But perhaps most frightening of all, it seems to me that many Americans, even if they do think critically about behavior, aren’t even confident about what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. It’s sad but understandable. Many millions of American parents are divorced, so in their households, the availability of parents in the home to discuss morals and values with kids has been divided in half. At the same time, morals and values aren’t often being discussed in public schools because teachers are afraid of being sued or fired if nonjudgmentalist parents get upset and accuse them of proselytizing in the classroom. Meanwhile, fewer Americans than ever before are attending church (or synagogue, or …) on a regular basis. So, if they’re not learning about morals and values at home, school, or church, it’s no wonder that many aren’t learning much about them at all.
That’s probably why many Americans these days are also so willing to accept mental “disorders” as excuses for bad behavior. They accept ADHD as an excuse for laziness, cheating, disrespect, and delinquent behavior from kids. Likewise, they accept addiction to drugs and alcohol as excuses for all kinds of bad behavior from adults, as if the continued use of those substances in the face of destructive consequences weren’t always a choice, regardless of how badly anyone craves them. And similarly, they accept “sex addiction” – which doesn’t even exist – as an excuse for the kind of bad behavior that we’ve seen from Weiner and many others.
And finally, I think that the concepts of compassion and forgiveness have gotten somewhat warped for many Americans – even many good-hearted, well-intentioned Americans who do attend church on a regular basis. As I see compassion, it belongs, first and foremost, with those who’ve been harmed (e.g. Weiner’s wife) and/or who might be harmed (e.g. voters) by someone’s bad behavior, not with the offender, but it seems like many Americans have that the other way around. Similarly, as I see forgiveness (of one human being by another – Godly forgiveness is another matter), it’s primarily for the benefit of the one who’s been harmed – so that he/she doesn’t go through life consumed by hateful or vengeful thoughts – not for the benefit of the offender, but again, it seems like many Americans have that turned around. And either way, I don’t believe that forgiveness requires the one who’s been harmed to also give the offender a second (or third, fourth…) chance to harm him/her.
I share your dismay that 8,000,000 New Yorkers would ever even consider settling for a guy like Weiner (or Eliot Spitzer) rather than demanding a person of character in every public office, but I’m confident that you and many other Americans are still talking about morals and values with your children, keeping the focus of compassion where it belongs, voting for people of character, etc., and that gives me hope for the country. Thanks for your excellent question!