I thought our culture was acting silly when it forced Congressman Anthony Weiner from office for twittering his junk to a 30 year old woman and then lying about it. However, Congressman David Wu’s recent resignation after it was disclosed he had a sexual encounter with an 18 year old girl is just. I base this distinction on insights from my favorite relationship/sex advice columnist, Dan Savage and one of my favorite modern Jewish philosophers, Martin Buber.
Over the years he has written his column, Savage has developed a philosophy regarding sexual relationships between young adults and much older adults. He sees the power dynamic in such relationships as favoring the older partner–he’s correct in this–and therefore believes it’s the older partner’s responsibility to act ethically in starting and ending such relationships. While Savage doesn’t believe such relationships need to be permanent, or even long-lasting, to be ethical, he does believe that these relationships should leave the younger partner better off upon their end than that partner was at the beginning. Mentorning or initiating young adults into sexual relationships can be mutually beneficial but as a precondition the relationship cannot be exploitative.
On a more general level, Martin Buber came to the same conclusion in his masterwork, I and Thou. Quoting wikipedia:
One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. All of our relationships, Buber contends, bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.
Buber uses two pairs of words to describe two fundamentally different types of relationship: “I-It.” and “I-Thou”.
For “I-It” relationships, the “It” refers to entities as discrete objects drawn from a defined set (e.g., he, she or any other objective entity defined by what makes it measurably different from other living entities). It can be said that “I” have as many distinct and different relationships with each “It” as there are “Its” in my life.
By contrast, the “I” in the “I-Thou” is a separate concept. This is the “I” that does not objectify any “It” but rather acknowledges a living relationship instead. The “I” in “I-Thou” is radically different from the “I” in “I-It.” “I-Thou” relationships are sustained in the spirit and mind of an “I” for however long the feeling or idea of relationship is the dominant mode of perception. A person sitting next to a complete stranger on a park bench may enter into an “I-Thou” relationship with the stranger merely by beginning to think positively about people in general. The stranger is a person as well, and gets instantaneously drawn into a mental or spiritual relationship with the person whose positive thoughts necessarily include the stranger as a member of the set of persons about whom positive thoughts are directed. It is not necessary for the stranger to have any idea that he is being drawn into an “I-Thou” relationship for such a relationship to arise.
So why was our culture silly to call for Weiner’s resignation but correct to call for Wu’s resignation? Weiner’s behavior represents a lapse of judgment (I would contend a minor lapse of judgment but understand others would assign greater weight to this lapse). Wu’s behavior (according to the New York Times he acknowledges this sexual encounter to his aides) shows a man who treats others as “its.” There is no way an unplanned and apparently brief sexual encounter between a 56 year old man and an 18 year old girl can end well for the girl. Of course she’s distraught. While we kinda expect our Congressman to treat constituents as objects-as “its”–we are right to be outraged when this behavior is so brazen.
If we are going to denude Congress of politicians who have occasional lapses in judgment, Congress will eventually be unable to obtain a quorum. However removing Congressmen who treat humans like objects is a good start towards creating a more ethical political culture.