Thursday, February 11, 2021

Drawing the Line with Moralism

Throughout the past few years, I’ve noticed more people distancing themselves from public figures—whether creative types or corporate brands—due to negative information that ultimately comes to light about them. It’s cancel culture in full effect, but I find it utterly fascinating to see how and when such distancing is employed; not all cases are treated equally, as it turns out.

We’re all well-versed in the routine: once-beloved celebrity has something they said or did unearthed years later, causing an uproar of umbrage amongst the media-hungry public. They either deny until it becomes impossible to do so, or they apologize straightaway, trying to make excuses for whatever the sin happened to be. Typically, these things cost them dearly, whether in their current employment status or their ability to be hired down the road.

Chris Hardwick was one of the most notable victims of the tail end of the peak of the MeToo movement—a casualty whose transgressions seemed grossly disproportionate when judged against the likes of Harvey Weinsten and Jeffrey Epstein. Athletes, too, have been lambasted, whether for political affiliation or other stances that chafe with popular opinion. Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke became a media darling for four quarters during his duel with eventual Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; the following day, as his support of then-President Donald Trump came to light, his inchoate fans quickly turned on him, denouncing him for his views.

The aforementioned examples, though, are all recent in nature and are directly connected with incredibly emotionally charged topics like MeToo and the Trump presidency. What intrigues me more, though, is how longstanding, historically-beloved individuals are treated when the same type of thing occurs. These are the instances that make folks physically uncomfortable when they are forced to face the fact that the reality they once perceived was anything but.

Theodor Geisel is as synonymous with American childhoods as Sesame Street, and, yet, his Dr. Seuss bibliography includes many instances of overtly racist artwork, saying nothing of the minstrel show he wrote and performed in while in college. H.P. Lovecraft, too, was a bigot—an anti-semitic, racist, white supremacist; he is also routinely referred to as the father of modern horror whose work has inspired innumerable writers since.

William Shakespeare—arguably the most famous writer of all-time—furthered tropes and stereotypes in his plays, whether the way Jews were portrayed in The Merchant of Venice or people of color in other works. Beloved political figures from American history—Thomas Jefferson chief among them—have had ugly revelations unearthed about their racist pasts, as have countless musicians, artists, writers, actors, athletes, and really any possible public figure with such transgressions affixed to their names.

The danger with moralizing such people, though, is the inherent inability to employ the same standards across the board; for every artist who is eschewed for abhorrent behavior, there are many more for whom excuses are made. Dr. Seuss and H.P. Lovecraft are so ingrained in the literary consciousness that it’s all but impossible to see them fading completely.

But what if they didn’t have to?

It’s a question that rarely comes up in such instances. I know plenty of writers who question whether or not they should continue reading and enjoying the work of writers who have unsavory details revealed about them long after they first became fans. What interests me to no end, though, is the lack of self-awareness that these folks have about their positions in the first place.

Part of it, I think, stems from an innate desire not to be affiliated with whatever the transgression happened to be. These people are afraid that their continued support or patronage will be construed as a tacit acceptance if not endorsement of the undesirable behavior. To those people, though, I would say this: who cares?

The way I see it, it’s all about the intent—what drew you to that person in the first place. With Lovecraft, his tales of cosmic horror inspired the imaginations of countless writers. Those people read his stories for the terror they invoked—the mental imagery Cthulu conjured, along with scores of other incredible creatures and characters. If it’s the content of the stories that you find appealing, then who cares about what type of person Lovecraft was if you’re able to separate the man from the work?

Progressive Harry Potter fans have been wrestling with this over the past year or two as author J.K. Rowling continues to demonstrate a powerful anti-trans stance. These people are conflicted because they love the Potterverse—a place that was crafted to be inclusive and empowering—but they abhor Rowling’s position. Again—if her anti-trans sentiments had no bearing on the creation of the Harry Potter novels, then why should you stop reading them simply because Rowling has a position that goes against what you believe?

I should note, though, that it’s a slippery slope, and that there are some situations where it’s all but impossible to separate the crime from the creator. Perhaps the best personal example of this that I can give involves Ian Watkins of the band Lostprophets. I used to love their music, but, when revelations came to light that Watkins was not merely a rampant, predatory pedophile, but that he had been involved with the raping and abuse of infants (!), I was so repulsed that I found I could no longer listen to any of their songs. I was unable, from that point forward, to separate what I knew about the monster behind the voice and the music that I once enjoyed.

The Watkins case is, thankfully, alone at the most egregious end of the spectrum, but it demonstrates that there IS a spectrum. For me, at least, there is an enormous gulf between “I dislike this person’s belief/disagree with their political/religious/etc. affiliation” and “this guy raped a baby.” There’s a line where I’m no longer comfortable supporting an artist, but, if it’s merely a matter of me holding a different viewpoint, then I don’t see the issue in continuing to enjoy that person’s work. As mentioned earlier, it’s also incredibly difficult if not outright impossible to apply that moral metric across the entirety of one’s life.

Ultimately, I can understand the concern about the ethical implications of supporting someone who does something or lives life in a way that opposes how you approach your own life. Still, I think people have a habit of overthinking and thus overcomplicating the situation when they begin to question whether or not they can continue enjoying something that they’ve loved for quite some time, simply because new information has become available. You made the decision to engage with that material at a time when that information wasn’t public knowledge, and it didn’t influence that choice whatsoever, so why not continue your patronage if it brings you joy?

We all have certain concerns that we weigh more heavily than others. I'm staunchly against domestic violence and child abuse, so when I hear about athletes like Tyreek Hill or Greg Hardy, it makes it difficult for me to root for them (and, in some cases, the teams they play for). I definitely understand other people doing the same for issues that impact them in a similar fashion, but it's so difficult to apply the same stipulations universally, especially if it's merely a matter of opinion. Plus, how many instances are there where we are unaware that the people we support at say, a local pizza place or bagel store, engage in those beliefs or behaviors. Would you stop going to those places if you absolutely loved the food, but suddenly found yourself at odds with the owners or employees on moral grounds?

I think people need to stop being so judgmental and worry less about how they will be perceived by others, and focus more on how they can take meaningful steps towards affecting change versus simply saying, “I am no longer a fan of this person.” I can all but guarantee that there will be inconsistencies in the moral stance you’re taking, and, if you’re willing to make concessions for others—whether other public figures or folks in your personal life—then why not lighten up and keep on liking what you like without feeling conflicted. It’s okay to say, “I don’t condone this aspect of the creator, but I do enjoy the creation,” especially if it has nothing to do with the issue in question.