Back at the turn of the century, I was sitting at a dinner table with a group of distinguished journalists. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was still a fresh topic of discussion, and I was struck by the way some in the group blindly minimized the significance of Clinton’s misdeeds.
Several of my companions felt that the country had overreacted to the President’s peccadilloes. “After all, it was consensual,” one said. “It certainly didn’t rise to the level of impeachment.”
I reminded my colleague that whether or not one agreed that Clinton’s behavior in the Oval Office merited disapproval, he was impeached not for doing whatever-it-was (remember, according to the Semanticist-in-Chief, it wasn’t “sexual relations”), but for lying before a grand jury.
“Yeah, well, I still think they made too much of it,” she replied. She also allowed as how she had met Clinton at a gathering once, and that he had an uncanny ability to make every woman feel like she was the only one in the room.
I relate this story because it demonstrates, I think, that people view and judge behavior selectively depending upon whether they have an emotional connection with the main actor. They don’t choose to condone it, they actually process it through a different set of filters, so that it ultimately needs no condoning. Hence, defenders of Herman Cain would rather blame the “liberal media” than hold him accountable for his acts, which would cast doubt on everything else about him, including his truthfulness and suitability to be President.
We have a legal system that strives for “equal protection under the law.” The core of it—the precedent-based code, jury trials, adversarial justice⎯is designed to offset mankind’s natural tendency to order the world based on his own emotions. One can see why it’s needed: Bias is as natural as breathing, regardless of one’s political bent.