Yesterday, CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote about the downfall of former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. After pointing out that Schneiderman was both a champion of the #MeToo movement and an alleged beater of women, Cillizza attempted to answer the question which seems central in this case: How could he be such a hypocrite? Here’s the answer Cillizza offers:
How could Schneiderman be so hypocritical? Because politicians are expert compartmentalizers. And some, like Schneiderman, have deluded themselves into thinking this is all totally OK. In his mind — and even in his resignation statement — the allegations all related to his private life and had nothing to do with his professional conduct. He had boxed away his monstrous conduct in his private life and didn’t view it as having any connection at all to his public persona. Which is, of course, ridiculous.
This strikes me as a conventional explanation but I wonder if it isn’t exactly wrong. Cillizza is saying that Schneiderman’s public and private realities were completely cut off from one another, but it occurs to me that what might be going on here is moral licensing.
The idea behind moral licensing is that people who engage in good moral behavior in one area then feel more free to indulge themselves in another area. I talked about this here in relation to environmentalism and also Harvey Weinstein. A meta-analysis of moral licensing studies offered this example:
For example, someone who has just spent some time volunteering for the local community center might later find it more acceptable to “forget” to report some additional income when filling out the tax return. The idea of moral licensing theory is that the prior good deed provides a “license” that allows one to perform morally questionable behavior later on.
Like a lot of social science, it’s not a settled question whether this phenomenon is completely understood or even exists at all, but assuming for the moment that it does, how would it apply to someone like Eric Schneiderman? Instead of seeing the private part of his life as completely separate from the public part, moral licensing suggests an explanation that connects the two.
As I pointed out yesterday, Schneiderman was being praised as a progressive superhero. He was battling the Trump administration and was also seen as a champion of women’s rights and the #MeToo movement, one who directly took on Harvey Weinstein. Having done all those good things in public, Schneiderman felt he could step out in his private life and do things which were objectively offensive, like telling his Sri Lankan girlfriend she was his “brown slave” and making her refer to him as “master.”
According to one of his victims, Schneiderman said, “you act a certain way and look a certain way, but I know that at heart you are a dirty little slut. You want to be my whore.” Needless to say, his date didn’t find that appealing. But I don’t think it shows that Schneiderman was compartmentalizing public and private. He wasn’t boxing one away from the other so much as using one as a jumping off point for the other. He’d said and done the right things in public and he was acknowledging that she had too, but now it was time to cut loose in a way that was the complete opposite of all of that. Schneiderman’s public and private personas weren’t compartmentalized any more than a diving board is compartmentalized from a pool.
There was a similar dynamic going on with Harvey Weinstein. He was a big Democratic fundraiser and someone who took on projects with a progressive bent. Even after the first allegations came out, he promised to make up for his bad behavior by going after the NRA. There was a link in his mind between his “good” politics in public and his bad behavior in private. He saw one as capable of balancing out the other. It seems to have been something of a surprise to Weinstein that the rest of the world didn’t see this as an acceptable bargain.