Anthony Weiner’s wife is pregnant. This latest piece of information in a sea of coverage after his confession that he had engaged in “inappropriate conversations conducted over Twitter, Facebook, email and occasionally on the phone” with women he had met online may be the last nail in the coffin for the Democratic New York congressman’s career. Republicans and now a few Democrats in Congress have called for his resignation, and his dream of becoming mayor of New York is certainly gone.
But in the midst of all the puns and sordid images, many people have paused to ask: why exactly was what Anthony Weiner did so wrong? In the new age of social media, what counts as infidelity?
Writing for the Huffington Post, religion scholar Marie Griffith asks her readers to “stop licking our chops long enough to ask what it means, not simply about him but about us.” She continues, “Online dalliances are not astonishing. What’s astonishing is his — and our — relentless self-delusion. Make no mistake: his moral failings may mirror our own.”
Blogger Jessica Wakeman, in a long and heartfelt post for the Frisky, documents how she was the victim of what she and others have begun to call “micro-infidelity,” when her boyfriend began flirting with another woman online. Even after Wakeman caught him (by checking his email, certainly another ethical quandary in an age of saved passwords), he denied that he had done anything wrong. “Sending photos was innocent, he insisted,” she writes. “He wasn’t cheating, he promised.”
The problem, for Wakeman, was that her boyfriend’s communications with this other woman affected their relationship. And that seems to be the fundamental question: do online flirtations constitute a “relationship,” even if the two people don’t touch?
Eli Karam, a marriage therapist at the University of Louisville, told NPR that a online “relationship” is entirely possible. And he adds that “emotional infidelity” can be as damaging as a physical fling, if not more so. On Slate, William Saletan agrees. “We’re finding new realms in which to wander, meet people, and flirt,” he writes. “You can call these adventures whatever you want to. But we all know what they are. They’re relationships.”
One thing is for sure: it’s easier to cheat on a partner online than in the flesh (so to speak). But that’s exactly one of the issues that Griffith, and others, want us to confront. What does it mean if it becomes easy to claim that online relationships are just “communications,” even if those “communications” are long and addictive or sustaining? What does that say about the relationships we have with our “real” partners, children, or friends?
Griffith points out the loneliness that can quickly grow during days spent in front of a computer, when a Facebook message can seem like a welcome social connection. “What we badly need,” she writes, “in the wake of the Congressman’s sad story, is a national conversation about our work environments and the technologies that make us feel isolated, anxious, and bored, despite all their promises of social connection.”
So was what Weiner did wrong? Ethically, yes. Whether he should step down is another question. But I think Griffith is right: the most important conversation to emerge from this sad, tawdry story is one that has to do with us, not Weiner.
Photo from Screaming Monkey's Flickr photostream.