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Message Lynn Johnson

Understanding the Anthony Weiner Phenomena: Why does he do it?

Copyright - 2011 by Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D.

"This life is a test.
It is only a test.
If this had been an actual life, you would have been given further instructions about where to go and what to do."

In the early 1980s, this notice went from fax machine to fax machine. If it is anything but a semi-clever joke (playing off the 1970s notices we'd occasionally hear on the radio), we might ask, "What is life testing?"

In the movie, Moonstruck, Rose (Olympia Dukakis) asks "Why do men cheat?' It is likely that Mrs. Anthony Weiner is asking the same question. In John Patrick Shanley's brilliant script, characters suggest it is because men fear death, and late in the movie, Rose confronts her philandering husband with the fact that he will die, whether he cheats or not.

There are some other reasons why men cheat. We cannot know why Weiner is faithless and why he lied so glibly.  Arnold Schwarzenegger mindlessly cheated and betrayed his faithful wife. The unfaithful politician is a cliche. Why do they do it? While we cannot know for sure, we can review factors.

When men are in a position of power and dominance, their testosterone rises. Men who are subordinate don't have as high levels, and their cortisol instead rises. It is as if Mother Nature is telling the dominant men that they should have sex with many partners and spread their seed widely. When men have been in the habit of giving in to impulses, when they have not schooled their feelings to be subservient to moral principles, that rise in testosterone drives them. Misunderstanding their own inner experience, they convince themselves that their rise in sexual energy means they are justified in giving in to impulses. Women seem less prone to such misuse of power.

At the same time, the power has a significant impact on relationships. Powerful men (and women) don't get told "no." In the bible, we read that in many counselors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14). Power without a countervailing force is dangerous.When he was President, John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Bobby to be the "devil's advocate," to take the opposite position to whatever course of action the rest of the cabinet espoused. So without a devil's advocate, without counselors with which powerful men discuss their options, there is a tendency for power to create a narcissistic world view. It becomes all about them. No one tells them "no."

For that matter, is it true that power corrupts? Perhaps not. We can certainly find exceptions, men holding great power who don't seem to be corrupted. There is no evidence that either of our greatest two presidents, Lincoln and Washington, misused their power. Famously, Washington voluntarily gave up power twice. Once when he was general and retired his sword to return to Mount Vernon. That walking away from power prompted his antagonist, King George III, to say he was "the greatest character of the age." King George couldn't fathom voluntarily relinquishing power.

But for every Washington, for every Lincoln who doesn't misuse power, we see numerous examples of despots, tyrants, and kleptocrats. Lord Acton seems mostly right. Power does corrupt. In the Arab countries today we see the rise of great disgust at such corrupt men. Unfortunately, history teaches us that more often than not, the cure is worse than the disease. Occasionally we see an American revolution, but more often we see French revolutions where things go rapidly very very wrong. Women do not seem less likely to misuse power for narcissistic reasons, or less likely to be seduced by status. Because sex means something very different to women than to men, they may be less likely to cheat, but just as likely to become tyrannical and even sadistic.

It may be more true, as someone said, that power doesn't corrupt so much as it attracts corruptible people. The paradox is that anyone who wants to be powerful is likely unworthy of power. Again, if your world view is that you are entitled to give in to whatever temptation attracts your attention, then you might be more driven to acquire power.

Moral education has been mostly abandoned in our secular post-modern world The idea of trying to inculcate morality into young children seems both quaint and tainted. For much of the twentieth century, sociologists tried to demonstrate that bad behavior was not the result of moral choice but rather because of social conditions. Poverty, it was argued, caused crime.

That view seems to have spent itself, and there is a return to the question of personal moral agency. Why did the 9-11 attackers, filled with murderous rage, destroy themselves and others? They were well educated young men coming from prosperous backgrounds. Clearly the question revolves about moral influences. Why was the World War II generation called "the greatest?" Was it perhaps because the teaching of morality and personal accountability was accepted and required? Should we resurrect the notion of moral education?

Can we really afford not to?

Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D.

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Lynn Johnson has been a practicing psychologist for the past thirty-five years. He is author of five published books and numerous professional articles. In spite of being a mental health provider, he is married to his first wife, and they have (more...)
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