Move On, Folks, Ain’t Nothin’ to See Here
When I found myself writing about Le Affaire Flynn/McBride last week, I promised myself that I’d return with a thoughtful reflection on why these stories are so irresistible. Then the Mark Sanford story broke and last week seems so, so long ago.
Like many others, I believe what people do privately is their own business as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. But it’s also true that salacious stories involving public figures are almost guaranteed to attract the attention of the masses. The reason, of course, is largely obvious. Sex sells. Most of us are attracted to the subject of sex whether we admit it or not.
But I think it’s overly simplistic to chalk this fascination up to some uncontrollable id that rages underneath the surface of every one of us. Most of us make it through the day without visiting porn sites or mentally undressing every attractive person we meet (back me up here). I believe there’s something universal here that isn’t strictly prurient.
We use stories to make sense of our world and have ever since cavemen drew pictures on walls. As children, we learn right from wrong by listening to fairy tales and real life stories from our parents and other role models.
Certainly there’s something distasteful about our interest in, even obsession with, scandal. But this is how we learn our “dos” and our “don’ts.” We are constantly testing and adjusting our values and ground rules as we add new information.
It’s hard to imagine today’s scandals matching the shelf-life of the two biggies of the ‘90s; the OJ trial and the Clinton impeachment. In both cases, I professed little interest in the gruesome details but it became impossible to look away after months and months of media overkill.
I no longer dismiss the public’s interest in these matters as groundless. We care about these stories because they help us better understand our own lives and the choices we make nearly every day.
So, no, I don’t think Jessica McBride or Chief Flynn, or Mark Sanford or Eliot Spitzer should be flogged or tarred and feathered but neither should they be given a pass that what they do on their own time is irrelevant. They are, in one way or another, public figures and their behavior gets evaluated by the court of public opinion whether they like it or not.
There’s a reason the CSI and Homicide franchises have become so amazingly popular. Our interest in analyzing the forensics of the personal lives of public figures serves a purpose in setting our moral compasses and is deeply ingrained in our DNA.
We slow down as we drive past the proverbial multi-car crash partly to gawk but also to gather information that we can use. Who was at fault? Was someone speeding? Were kids involved? What judgements can we make?
The authorities may say, “There’s nothing to see here, folks, just move on” but we all want to decide for ourselves.