The Corner

Roy Moore and Our Faith in Our Abilities to Assess Others’ Character

From the first Morning Jolt of the week:

Roy Moore and Our Faith in Our Abilities to Assess Others’ Character

We all like to think we have a good sixth sense about people. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink about the decisions we make instantly, without thinking. We all like to believe we can spot a liar, not be fooled by the con man, resist the siren call of the salesman or advertising. We like to believe that our intuition, Divine guidance, Spidey-sense or the Force will set off alarm bells if someone we encounter has secret malevolent intentions or overall bad character.

Obviously, a lot of people who think they have this good sense about people don’t, otherwise con men would never succeed. Life has a way of teaching us some humility as it passes. I’ve had tenants rip me off, enjoyed the company of friends who weren’t actually my friends, and I thought former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell had a bright future in Republican politics. The odds are good that we don’t really know people as well as we think we know them, and that is exponentially more accurate for public figures.

If you’re reading this newsletter, the odds are good that if you had ever heard of Harvey Weinstein before his scandal, you didn’t think well of him. He’s the Hollywood elite personified. Let’s face it, he looks like an obese toad, and separate from the sex scandals, he had well-publicized tales of an enormous ego and quick temper. He’s smug and insufferable, once boasting, “Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion.”

Once we learned that Weinstein was a sexual predator, groping and harassing and attacking his way through every actress and model in Hollywood, probably quite a few people who never liked him felt vindicated, thinking something like, “I knew there was something really wrong with that guy.” Perhaps you really are a good judge of character or have a sixth sense about people. But perhaps you simply had other reasons to not like him and drew a full conclusion about his character from that.

If you’re reading this newsletter, the odds are good that if you had ever heard of Roy Moore before the scandal, you thought better of him, or at least better than Harvey Weinstein. (That may be the lowest bar to clear.) Perhaps like me, you’re skeptical that a statue of the Ten Commandments in a judicial building represents an unacceptable unification of church and state. (If any particular statue, painting, or other work is an artistic depiction of any culture’s representation of justice, I’d be inclined to let it stay. The U.S. Supreme Court building has friezes featuring Moses, Solomon, Confucius Justinian Muhammad (!) Charlemagne, Napoleon and others.) Rather than seeing Moore’s fight over the Ten Commandments statue as a sign of his appetite for theocratic extremism, as many in the media portrayed it, you saw Moore as a man fighting to keep some semblance of Christian values in an increasingly morally decadent society. You may or may not agree with Moore’s steadfast refusal to enforce a Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.

Thursday the Washington Post reported on the four women describing Moore’s advances upon them in their teenage years. Moore says he never met Leigh Corfman and never had any contact with her. He said he knew two of the other women in the story but never dated them.*

A lot of people’s evaluation of the differing accounts is based upon their preexisting opinion of Moore. If you thought he was a loon or extremist before, it’s a short step to imagine him pursuing women way too young for him, even in violation of the law; if you like him, you believe he deserves the benefit of the doubt until someone presents irrefutable proof that these allegations are true.

Perhaps you really are a good judge of character or have a sixth sense about Roy Moore. But perhaps you simply had other reasons to like him and are drawing an inaccurate conclusion about his character from that.

It should not surprise us that Roy Moore fans are treating the Washington Post story as a personal attack upon themselves; on some level, it is. The article asserts, in effect, “the man you thought of as a good man for all these years was, at least in the late 70s and early 80s, not a good man. Your judgment and ability to assess others’ character is faulty.” This fact is true of all of us, but no one likes being confronted with it.

I would argue the solution for this is to simply stop seeing public figures – whether it’s political figures or celebrities – as role models and stop putting them up on pedestals. The ability to win elections, perform well on camera, perform great athletic feats, or other extraordinary traits are not synonymous with good character. (It is entirely possible that good character is an impediment to ambition.)

Last week I offered a few tweets on this theme with photos of Bill Clinton, Bernard Law, Bill Cosby, Jimmy Swaggart, John Edwards, O.J. Simpson, Jim McGreevey, Kevin Spacey, Dennis Hastert, Eliot Spitzer, and Tiger Woods, and it was fascinating to see how many argued that one figure or the other didn’t belong in the same category with the others. The point is that all of them had a dark side that they hid from their many admirers, one that led to their downfall. It is likely that fame, power, and money do not bring out a person’s best character. An atmosphere of constant adoration and entitlement probably erodes the conscience and that little voice declaring, “I shouldn’t do that.”

Perhaps particular forms of fame present their own enabling influence: If you’re a comedian known for doing blunt sexual routines, describing your id’s desire to take wildly inappropriate actions, and everyone laughs and praises you as a genius for that, it becomes more difficult to resist the impulse to act out those actions in real life.

* Some would argue that Moore is giving contradictory statements in his defense, first stating, “These allegations are completely false, false and misleading,” and then later saying, “I don’t remember going out on dates. I knew her as a friend. If we did go out on dates then we did. But I do not remember that.” If they did indeed go on dates and Moore simply doesn’t remember it, then the allegation isn’t “completely false, false and misleading.”

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