A Warning From 1890: Sex Scandals Make Us Stupid

A surprisingly relevant observation about salacious gossip, applied to the Anthony Weiner era

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The seminal essay "The Right to Privacy," published in the December 15, 1890, issue of the Harvard Law Review, contains a passage that does as good a job of any I've ever seen of explaining why it is foolish for the political press and the people who read it to obsess over sex scandals.

The authors, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, were obviously writing in a much different time, and weren't commenting on today's media. They were also primarily concerned with private figures.

But let's try applying their insights to our circumstances. Brandeis and Warren wrote:

To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle. The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.

Nor is the harm wrought by such invasions confined to the suffering of those who may be the subjects of journalistic or other enterprise. In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in the lowering of social standards and of morality.

Even gossip apparently harmless, when widely and persistently circulated, is potent for evil. It both belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people. When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.

Today, in part due to Bill Clinton's behavior, and partly because of European attitudes toward politicians and sex, we're accustomed to thinking of arguments for ignoring sex scandals as liberal. But Brandeis and Warren articulated a virtue-based case for keeping personal gossip out of public.

It is persuasive too. Can anyone deny that the intersection of sex and politics shrinks the space available for more important matters, leads the thoughtless to mistake its relative importance, appeals to that weak side of us that delights in the misfortune of others, and usurps brains capable of other things? The authors sure would've hated the New York mayor's race.