A question that’s been nagging me: Would Anthony Weiner still have a political career if he hadn’t owned an iPhone?
Last week Weiner pled guilty to sending sexually explicit messages to a minor through his smartphone. His plea deal comes with probable prison time. Weiner, former Congressman and aspiring New York City mayor, told the court that his “destructive impulses brought great devastation to family and friends, and destroyed my life’s dream of public service.” Weiner’s political ambitions are shattered, almost certainly beyond repair, and his relationship with his children is imperiled. How would his story have been different if Weiner simply didn’t own a phone that could do what he used it to do?
Perhaps our first impulse is to dismiss such a question. We don’t usually think of the physical technology itself as operative in our sin. Wasn’t Weiner just a sexual deviant, and wouldn’t a sexual deviant find a way to satisfy himself regardless? But this response disregards the embodied nature of temptation. In a rush to label our technology as “neutral,” we often ignore the shaping effects it has on us. If our phones, social media, and iPads can condition us toward distraction and insecurity–and there is growing evidence they can–why would we be surprised to discover they can also make us more vulnerable to destructive desires?
Of course, infidelity and illicit sexual activity are not novel to our current generation of political leaderships. There have always been mistresses, secrets, and scandals. But we shouldn’t reason from this that every cultural moment is created equal. Digital technology eliminates barriers of geography, physicality, and evidence in genuinely unprecedented ways. One hundred years ago, if an elected official (or anyone else) wanted a sexual episode, he had to be somewhere specific, an actual physical place whose geographical character created inextricable risks of being seen or heard. Did the inherent dangers of such a risk actually prevent the moral failures of some who might have been unable to resist the individualized, delete-able world “sexting”?
I understand that some may think talking this way diminishes the importance of the “inner person.” Can we really commend ourselves for having our sinful desires hemmed in by uncooperative technology? Lust absolutely does begin in the heart, and the heart does not need Twitter or video streaming. But it’s a mistake to pit this fact against another fact: that temptation is embodied because humans are. We are tied to specific people, places, and things. When it comes to pornography and the hook up culture, digitization is weaponization, and for many of us, winning the war against sexual nihilism in our communities and our own souls might mean refusing to even pick up the weapons.
So, back to the original question. If Anthony Weiner didn’t own a smartphone, would he have pled guilty in state court last week? Would he have thought to send explicit photos and texts to a teenage stranger? Would his fear of discovery and fallout preserved his public reputation if he had not been roped in by the ephemeral blue glow of instant gratification and pocket-sized, password protected secrets?
We can’t know the answers to these questions. But we need to ask them. We need to ask them because we are not gnostics. We confess the spiritual nature of the physical world. We are bodies and souls, and we will always be both. That means that the “spiritual” realm of temptation is a physical one too. Hearts desire, but so do bodies, a fact not lost on the people who build “adult” superstores off the interstate highways, inviting tired and lonely truck drivers refueling just a block away.
Could one of the lessons of Anthony Weiner’s fall be that we should take our digital technology more seriously as a potential stumbling block? I think so. Shrugging off social media and mobile devices as neutral might sound good on paper. But for any of us, at any given moment, there are thousands of ways to wreck our lives and the lives of those around us. It could be that inventions that destroy the created limits imposed on us by space and time are inventions that push us inwardly, away from embodied means of grace and toward the illusion that we are gods of our desires and destinies.
Solomon once observed a “young man lacking sense,” who took a jaunt near the house of a forbidden woman at twilight. She seduces him in proximity and in darkness, and it costs him his life (Proverbs 7). The king of Israel summarizes the lesson for his sons: “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths.” (7:25) If Solomon had lived a few thousand years later, he probably would have added: “Don’t look her up on Facebook.”