Bite My Lip and Close My Eyes

To be fair, the “Like” button on most social media is multivalent, forced to serve a host of meanings and functions that do not necessarily entail the “liker” actually “liking” the post “liked.”

On Twitter, for example, liking a post is the easiest way to flag it for future reference. It may be an article that looks intriguing that you want to go back and read later, but it also may be an article that looks horrific that you may want to go back and hate-read later. Other Twitter users cannot easily tell which of these your “Like” indicates.*

I don't have permission to use this AP photo, but I couldn't resist using it. Call it an act of akrasia.
I don’t have permission to use this AP photo, but I couldn’t resist using it. Call it an act of akrasia.

So, yes, it is possible that Sen. Ted Cruz and/or some staffer in his office “liked” a pornographic tweet late last night because the senator/intern was thinking, “Ooh, I’ll want to call this up later when I’m alone to enjoy myself.” But it’s also possible, in theory at least, that the senator and/or intern was thinking, “Great Jehosophat! There appears to be unsolicited pornography here on the Internet — we must protect the children!” and clicked “like” to keep track of this horrifying affront to public decency in order to later trace its source, sanction its producers, and draft legislation preventing such terrible, terrible things from ever appearing in anyone else’s Twitter feed.

This is, after all, a man who once argued in court that Americans do not have any right to masturbate. (Cruz’s “small-government conservatism,” apparently, holds that any private behavior not explicitly defended in the Constitution is therefore prohibited by it.)

The first scenario seems more likely, I think, and that appears to be the explanation the senator is going with — insisting that it wasn’t him, personally, and that he will be conducting an internal investigation to find out who among his staff is responsible for this embarrassment. (Note to Sen. Cruz: We carry UV lamps at the Big Box if you need one.)

“There are a number of people on the team who have access on the account. It appears that someone inadvertently hit the like button. When we discovered the post, which was I guess an hour or two later, we pulled it down,” Cruz said. “It was a staffing issue. And it was inadvertent, it was a mistake. It was not a deliberate act. We’re dealing with it internally, but it was a mistake. It was not malicious.”

I’m not sure how someone inadvertently searched for porn on Twitter, but I think those last eight words are probably correct: It was a “mistake,” but “was not malicious.” It’s not clear, though, that Ted Cruz understands the meaning of that morally significant distinction here. Malice is a graver evil than akrasia, the fancy old-timey designation for mere weakness or stumbling. Akrasia happens. After all, nobody’s perfect. We’re all fallible. But fallibility and evil are not the same thing.

The weird thing here is that Cruz seems to regard masturbation (or even titillation) as an act of malice, not as a mere mistake resulting from a moment of weakness. That’s … odd. If you’re doing that maliciously, I think you’re probably doing it wrong.

Look, I recognize that the (approximately universal) deed in question here can involve what we religious types call sin — often more akin to sloth or gluttony than to the lust we automatically associate with it. It can involve the objectification of others or of oneself in unhealthy ways. It can be a form of selfishness. (And that’s all without even getting into the whole matter of complicity in the production of the pornography that may or may not be involved in the matter.) So, without meaning to disparage anyone’s hobbies, I understand the moral reasoning that can regard at least some forms of the deed as “sinful.” I’m not personally inclined to condemn it as sin or even as a problem. (I mean, depending on where and how often.)** But, yes, I understand the argument from those who do.***

The point here, though, is that it’s unusual — and disturbing — to see masturbation condemned as an act of malice. Perhaps that’s not what Cruz meant. Perhaps what he meant by a deliberate maliciousness was that the staffer/intern simply screwed up without any intent of deliberately and maliciously attempting to damage the senator’s reputation. I hope that’s what he meant. And I hope that, given that, he finds some gracious way to deal with the intern in question without damaging that person’s whole reputation more than they have already damaged it by making “Office of Sen. Ted Cruz” a prominent line on their résumé.

Regardless of how this all shakes out for Cruz and his staff, let’s try to make this a teachable moment as well as a hilarious one. Human weakness is different from malice. When someone has a moment of weakness and makes a mistake we should afford them the same charity and grace we ourselves will need to rely on when, inevitably, we make our own mistakes. And when someone acts maliciously, we should afford them the charity and grace of standing up to them and calling them out, just as we ourselves would want to be corrected lest we start to make a habit of that and wind up being the kind of predatory, evil jerks who would, for example, vote to deny access to health care for tens of millions of our neighbors.

In short, some lonely senate staffer searched for and “liked” a bit of porno using his boss’s official Twitter account. That’s a mistake. This same staffer willingly continued to work for the senator in question despite that senator’s support for repealing the ACA and DACA. That’s malice. We should readily forgive the former. The latter requires repentance.

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* I use the like feature in both of these ways, as the Twitter equivalent of a “bookmark.” I also use it, of course, to indicate that I liked a post — that someone’s joke made me laugh, or that I am happy for them when they share good news. I also sometimes use it, somewhat awkwardly, to indicate sympathy when someone shares bad news. Most social media users do that, recognizing that as the only available tool it is necessarily ambiguous and may sometimes signify “Ugh, so sorry to hear that. That’s terrible” rather than “I like this!”

** I worked for a year at the front desk of a home for dual-diagnosis adults. In a typical day, I probably said “That’s a private thing, remember? We don’t do that here” as often as I said “Hello, how may I direct your call?” And in the same politely perfunctory tone of voice. This had absolutely nothing to do with any category of “sin.”

*** Years ago, an earnest evangelical friend confessed to me that he “struggled with masturbation.” I suggested trying his other hand. I wasn’t being flippant. He was agonizing over this and obsessing over it out of all proportion. Making something like that the focus of “spiritual” preoccupation is, itself, far more dangerously self-absorbing and self-obsessing than occasionally rubbing one out might ever be. In the name of spiritual “struggle,” he was locking the doors to his own cell and losing the key just as surely as Billie Joe in “Longview” — the mirror image, perhaps, but the same result.

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