Saturday, May 21, 2011

Breaking the Rules

We’re a long way from Will and Kate.

By now I am sure that we would all like to go back to those halcyon days when two charming young people were married in front of what must have been the world’s largest television audience.

Now, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn awaiting trial on rape charges and Arnold Schwarzenegger being shown to be a serial adulterer, we have descended into the moral muck and mire.

Let’s be clear that the two situations have little to nothing in common. It is disingenuous to try to lump them together because in both cases, in Caitlyn Flanagan’s unfortunate phrase, powerful men were “helping themselves to the help.” Link here.

In what is surely one of the most morally pecular angles on these stories, DSK’s wife is standing by her man while Arnold’s wife is filing for divorce.

Everyone wants to know why people do what they do. What leads a man as wealthy and powerful as Dominique Strauss-Kahn to risk his life’s work for a few fleeting moments of sexual enjoyment with a woman who doesn’t want to have anything to do with him?

Did he misinterpret the signs? Did he believe that No meant Yes. Did he simply not care what she thought? Or, did he think that he was immune to the criminal justice system? For all you and I know, if he had been in Paris, he might well have been.

As for insight and understanding into his psychology, I was especially impressed by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s analysis: “It's not just a truism but an oft-demonstrated social psychological finding that people in power think that rules don't apply to them and are more oriented toward satisfying their goals than adhering to social norms.” Link here.

Of course, we hear this all the time. Our culture, such as it is, tells us that we need to free ourselves of rules of good behavior. Do you remember the horror that greeted an old book recommending that people follow the rules of dating? The culture tells us that social norms are for chumps, that they were designed to repress our libidinal energies and our creative spirit.

The culture wants us to give our repressed impulses free reign.

Surely, no one would condone what happened in the Times Square Sofitel, but it is fair to note that DSK was acting as though the rules did not apply to him. He gave his impulses perfectly free reign.

Having lifted a page from Nietzsche, our culture warriors have encouraged us all to become Supermen, paragons of amorality, beings for whom the rules do not apply.

And beings who need not live according to social norms. After all, don’t you see, norms will make you normal. And normal, how shall I say it, is boring.

How could anyone be expected to live with such terminal ennui.

Of course, our culture warriors envision us all out on our farms throwing pots. They do not envision Dominique Strauss-Kahn raping a hotel maid.

Unfortunately, they believe that the criminal justice system, with its strict punitive sanctions, will be a sufficient deterrent. They do not realize that the rich and powerful feel that they can game the criminal justice system. Often they succeed. 
Mark Steyn offers a catalogue of the unprosecuted crimes and misdemeanors of the rich and powerful, from Bill Clinton to Ted Kennedy to Tim Geithner. Link here.

When we are talking about criminal behavior among the powerful, they may not be “too big to fail,” but they are too powerful to punish.

How could DSK have imagined that he could get away with raping a maid in New York? Pfeffer explains: “But these cases also make what to me is an even more important point: power protects, albeit not completely, those who have it from the consequences of their actions.”

Everyone wants to have powerful friends. Everyone wants to bask in the glow of power. Everyone wants the benefits that accrue to the powerful. That may include fame, notoriety, glory, and riches, but it also includes the ability to do what you please, when you please, with whom you please.

Pfeffer describes it well: “Anyone who has been near or friends with those in power has seen the benefits, including connections, jobs, and money, that come with proximity. Just as a dog whose dinner was routinely announced with a bell can't help but salivate when the belltone alone is served up, perhaps we internalize the heuristic association between power and positive outcomes, and continue to positively value the powerful even when they are not the nicest or most trustworthy people. Finally, there is a basis in the willingness to ‘bask in reflected glory.’ We may think that being close even to symbols of power, let alone the powerful, will somehow rub off on us in ways that benefit our well-being.”

For those of us who are more philosophically minded, the real question is whether Dominique Strauss-Kahn is showing us the dark side of human nature or whether he is showing us what happens when people decide to live their lives according to the musings of a great philosopher.


Anonymous said...

Yes, those halcyon days would be nice, like your high school classroom.

Unfortunately, there is this:, a (yet another) female teacher having sex with her students.

This one with *five* students while her husband, and presumed father of her three children was stationed overseas.

Kind of like this Mormon "soccer mom" who had sex with her daughter's 14-year-old boyfriend and another boy.

The world has changed in many ways, but we only seem to look at one sex when assigning blame and guilt.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Excellent point... I will be writing some more about women behaving badly this morning.