Virtually Emotional

Last week, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo sat down with Dr. Phil to talk about his role in the Manti Te’o scandal. Those whose gaydar went off over the story have some vindication. RT created Te’o’s non-existent girlfriend, Lennay, impersonated her voice on the phone (see above), in order to  have a virtual romantic relationship with MT.  Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, the first to report on the hoax, summarize:

Tuiasosopo explained that he felt a lot of real feelings toward Te’o: When he called Manti, and a girl picked up, he got angry. The night Te’o’s grandmother died, Te’o supposedly told Lennay that he never wanted to speak to her again—that’s why Tuiasosopo killed her off that night.

Of course, one has to take a lot of this with a pinch of salt, given RT’s propensity for total delusion. And he’s obviously a young man with a lot of conflicts with his longings for love with another man:

“If you look at this situation and everything that I’ve been through, I would say yeah I’m gay. But honestly I’m so confused,” … As a devout Christian, Tuiasosopo feels he’s afflicted with a case of “the gay” and needs to “recover” from it as one would recover from a drug or alcohol problem. “It takes a lot of courage to recover from homosexuality and this type of thing and coming back to your real life. As hard of a task it is, I’m going to do all I can to live right.”

One other aspect worth mentioning – this was clearly about love, not actual sex – and virtual love at that. One lesson to glean from this is that healthy homosexuality is at core an emotional orientation before it is a sexual one. The second is that love can indeed be virtual.

MT also lied, he says, in part because he thought no one would believe he could have had a serious, meaningful relationship with someone who existed only online – hence making up meeting her afterwards. But I don’t see online interaction as easily separable from real-life human interaction any more. We spend more and more time communicating with one another virtually rather than physically. But these communications are still between human beings, with all our foibles and needs and crushes and hatreds and, if we’re lucky, wit and humor. We do not cease being human online; but we do wear a kind of mask, concealing some things, revealing others – whether on a blog or a hook-up app or a list-serv or a Facebook wall. And if you spend more hours a day communicating that way, you haven’t stopped living. You’re actually slowly becoming another person on top of your regular self. How many times have you had lunch with someone and see them pick their phone up and text someone? At that moment, they’re two people in one – playing different roles simultaneously. It’s not surprising that in some lively imaginations and young souls, things can get confusing.

This is the current reality for a lot of us. We meet many more people virtually than on the street or in our physical daily lives. We also get to know them more. The anonymity of the web can allow people not just to trash talk in a way they wouldn’t in real life but to sext and love-talk with strangers they’ve only seen pictures of. Some of this may actually be more authentic an expression of ourselves than anything we have the courage to say to someone’s face.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that the more time we live virtually, the more we will reproduce aspects of our pre-virtual life online. Including love. And this strange, amazing story was about love, not sex. It was about a panicked, conflicted young gay man knowing he would be rebuffed by his straight crush and setting up a fantasy where he could become a virtual woman to have a relationship with him.

For some generations, this is going to seem extremely weird. For younger ones, less so, I have a feeling. Increasingly, we seem to live parallel lives – as a person with a body and as an online avatar. Comedy and tragedy will doubtless ensue. That’s what masks can do.

Previous Dish on the media’s role in the Manti Te’o hoax here and here. The thread on Te’o’s role in the hoax here, here and here.