Anthony Weiner. “About 13,900 results in 0.09 seconds,” says Google News. One photo of a man’s underwear-clad p-nis gets as much media attention as Syria’s entire civil uprising. I despair for humanity. And yet, upon reflection, it’s actually so very human.

Let’s take the internet out of the equation for a moment.

Let’s imagine instead that we’re walking down the street one night and happen to see through a window accidentally left open a n-ked man with, well, an erect p-nis. Or a woman similarly unclothed. Or two or more people engaged in some sort of s-xual congress — lovely word, “congress”, is it not?

The socially acceptable thing to do at this point is to avert our eyes. We may or may not be a little embarrassed, depending on our worldliness, but we move on.

What is not socially acceptable is to stand and watch. That’s called being a peeping Tom. That’ll get you arrested. What we certainly don’t do, if we have any sense of decency whatsoever, is reproduce the image somehow and distribute it to the world’s media.

What this hapless chap from New York seems to have done is the internet equivalent of accidentally leaving the window open. Erotic activity between him and another consenting adult has unintentionally become public. Yet instead of moving on, we’ve stayed to watch. We’ve made it our business. We’ve made it everybody’s business.

We have, in fact, become the very people that we warned our children about in National Cyber Security Awareness Week last week. We’ve exploited someone because they didn’t understand the privacy implications of material they put online.

We are disgusting.

OK, Weiner’s activities are all rather sordid, given that he’s only recently married. But surely that’s a matter for his conscience, a matter for him and his wife to sort out. There’s also a certain tackiness, even creepiness in his reported contact with some apparently school-age women. But unless that’s crossed the boundary of what’s legal in the state of New York, again it’s a matter for his conscience.

Precisely none of this has anything to do with whether he’s an effective representative and policy maker for New York’s 9th congressional district.

Well, except perhaps for the part where Weiner may or may not have used congressional funds to pay for the p-rn star’s PR — although that little tidbit only emerged much, much later.

Somehow, being “on the internet” lets us ignore the social rules about minding our own business. Even though some of us have had the internet for 40 years, or since it was available commercially to the masses more than a decade and a half ago, or since some time a good few years back when more of us were online than not, we still haven’t developed a feel for the social niceties.

Clay Shirky pointed out a couple years back that when the industrial revolution moved us all from small rural communities into cities, living cheek by jowl and with completely different daily routines, we spent an entire generation drunk because we couldn’t cope. It was the next generation, the one that grew up in this newly urban world, that developed the social rules and created the future.

In this new internet age, we are the generation that is still drunk with the possibilities — in this case drunk with the power to pry into strangers’ lives.

And yet …

Weiner is a politician. One of the alpha males. As social primates, we need to know whether he’s fit to lead the tribe. In the absence of more sophisticated, more socially acceptable ways of discovering the answer, we resort to our hard-wired primate methodologies.

We look at his d-ck.

As anthropoligist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar pointed out in his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, gossip — especially s-xually charged gossip — is at the very core of being human. We invented language to make gossip easier, to maintain the social bonds between Dunbar’s Number of people. The internet makes all this even easier.

And as Peter Conrad pointed out in his essay on Chris Lilley’s d-ck-obsessed Angry Boys in The Monthly, what could be funnier than a p-nis?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey