Saturday, October 10, 2015

Dr. Cleveland's Rule for Evaluating Rumors of Affairs

So, the latest Republican self-immolation in the House apparently has now also spun off nasty little rumors of an affair between two Members of the House. Let me say, straight off, that I don't give a damn whether or not that's true. My issue with today's Republicans is not the conduct of their private lives, but the scandalous and shocking conduct of their public lives. They face important moral questions in the House every day and give immoral answers. When someone is for torture and against feeding the starving, adultery is really not the big moral issue.

But that said, I'm inclined to believe that the rumors are more likely to be untrue than true. I could be proved wrong: it's maybe a 60-40 or 70-30 proposition. But the stories could just be a smear, especially considering the very shaky sources of the accusation so far. In fact, news outlets promoting this story should be ashamed for circulating these rumors without even one good source that can testify to their truth. And I am also skeptical because of my Rumored Affair Rule of Thumb: always be more skeptical of a rumored affair when the people involved are attractive.

Rumors like this get started for many reasons (including, occasionally, because the rumor is true). But people repeat them for reasons of their own. Sometimes, a rumor like this has legs because circumstantial evidence keeps it going. Sometimes, the rumor sticks because people have an ulterior motive that the rumor furthers, as in many political situations. But also, in general, people tend to repeat a sexual rumor if they think it's hot. The sexier the people in the story are, the more people like that story. It's basic human nature. So a flimsy story featuring two attractive people (or just a conspicuously attractive woman) tends to flourish despite the lack if any good reason to believe it. The reason people believe those rumors is because believing them is titillating.

People love love love talking about the rumored JFK-Marilyn Monroe affair, for example, although the evidence seems to suggest that it was basically just a one-night stand. But people love love love talking about it because nearly everyone finds at least one of those two people sexually attractive. Telling that story, or thinking about it, is a way of titillating yourself. On the other hand, you've probably never heard that Bob Hope had a confirmed and quite torrid affair with Ethel Merman, and you will probably blot that information from your mind by the middle of my next paragraph, because you really may not want to picture that.

So my rule of thumb, especially but not exclusively with show business rumors, is to take a story where the protagonists are sexy (by the standards of their profession) as suspect until proven otherwise. When the sexiness of the couple is in doubt, I go with the question of how sexy the woman in the rumor is. Rumors about sexy people fly further on flimsier wings, so when someone tells you a hot rumor about Celebrity A and Celebrity B, what they are really saying is "I enjoy thinking about Celebrity A-and/or-B having sex." They're not necessarily telling you anything else.

The current scurrilous rumor about two Republicans in the House involves two perfectly nice-looking people for their age and profession. They could not star in a teen romance movie, and neither happens to be my personal cup of tea, but for forty- and fifty-something politicians they look pretty good. And, more importantly, the female politician in the story is conventionally very attractive. When that woman's fellow Republicans gossip about her committing adultery, what they are really saying is that they enjoy thinking about that Congresswoman having some illicit sex. And a lot of them are admitting that they would like to be committing adultery with her. Maybe she actually has a lover. But that's not really the point. The rumor flourishes because the men she works with enjoy thinking about her with a lover. It goes with the territory, still, in 2015.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at Dagblog

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