I have never been a fan of Dennis Prager or Prager University. Now, I can say that sentiment has risen to a recommendation to avoid it completely. Watch this clip about the relationship between private comments and character. Specifically, Prager makes reference to Donald Trump’s vulgar comments on the Access Hollywood tape.
Dennis Prager defends Trump’s Access Hollywood sexual assault comments, claiming what people say privately “is not an accurate indicator of a person’s character” pic.twitter.com/o30Oi01BfJ
— Jason Campbell (@JasonSCampbell) January 17, 2020
You can watch the whole fireside chat here.
In this video, he correctly says that humans in private say and think things that are bad. This observation follows from the Christian doctrine of sin. Private evil is also consistent with a psychoanalytic perspective, whether it stem from Freud’s id or Jung’s shadow. However, Prager’s reference to Trump’s Access Hollywood comments as “private” is deeply flawed. As a result his moral lesson is also flawed.
Trump spoke on a television set to another person about what he had done (“moved on her like a bitch”) and what he claimed to do as a matter of course (sexually assault women). His comments were not private and they were not about his private wishes. He described what he had done and claimed to do as a matter of practice.
What Trump disclosed to Billy Bush in that conversation was not normal. For Prager to attempt to excuse this or normalize it is a disgrace. Remember Trump did not say that he worried about these fantasies or that he wished he didn’t have them or that he was fighting them. He wasn’t disclosing troubling thoughts to his therapist in an effort to help himself rise above them. They weren’t even jokes or hyperbole (which would be a less reliable indicator of character). Trump boastfully described something he had done and might do again.
Prager’s general point that private talk “is not an accurate indicator of a person’s character” isn’t consistent with common sense, the Bible, or psychological work. While I agree that humans are flawed, we are not all troubled in the same ways. It is not original with me to cite the words of Jesus on this point:
‘You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Mt. 12:34). Prager seems to think that iF he talks louder, slower, and more forcefully he will convince us that what Jesus said here isn’t true. https://t.co/BnXpMezFga
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) January 19, 2020
Social psychological research has demonstrated several ways that we present a front. We manage our appearance and behavior to give socially advantageous impressions. The results of self-report on tests is often questionable because of social desirability bias. Even though we don’t often know ourselves well, we often put on a different persona than we really feel. Most people agree with the idiom: you can’t judge a book by its cover. Prager wants us to believe you can’t judge a book by the book.
Prager’s effort to level the moral playing field to the lowest common denominator is a transparent effort to ease the conscience of Trump supporters. If Prager is going to be consistent then he will need to tape another fire side chat to excuse the private behavior of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.
Prager was unprepared to speak intelligently about the matter. He didn’t even know the name of the show (he called it “Planet Hollywood”) and he tap danced around the specifics of what Trump said. Prager also revealed something about himself, saying that he engages in stereotypes about gender and ethnicity while he is driving. I can honestly say that I have had lots of road rage, but I have never attributed a person’s bad driving to their ethnicity or their religion. That information is something he probably should have kept private.
Additional point: Other Trump’s defenders want us to judge what they say is Trump’s heart and not his public words or actions. Defending Trump’s apparent ridicule of a disabled reporter, Kellyanne Conway once asked Chris Cuomo:
You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he’s telling you what was in his heart? You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.
So if we can’t judge based on private disclosures and we can’t judge based on his public actions and words, then how may we judge him? I get the strong suspicion that Trump’s followers don’t want anyone to judge him at all.
Image via Wikipedia, taken by Gage Skidmore