Sitting in Judgment

I’ve given considerable thought of late to whether the behavior of movie stars, politicians, and other public figures who are accused of—or actually admit to—being sexual predators warrants nullifying the value of any contributions they may have made to society. In years past, the film work of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, for example, has been denigrated after accusations were made against them. Today, the same issues are being brought forward in response to allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Gary Goddard, Roy Moore, Steven Seagal, Brett Rattner…the list goes on.

On the one hand, it seems that to continue lavishing praise on their work is an insult to their victims and, it might be argued, tacit approval or forgiveness for their transgressions. But on the other, to exclusively equate the value of a person’s work product with the quality of his or her personality seems ludicrous. If we look back in history at artists and other public figures, we find exceptional work done by people of questionable moral standards. For example, Ezra Pound was an anti-Semitic fascist, but much of his writing is revered today as the work of a genius. The German composer, Richard Wagner, is widely regarded as one of Hitler’s favorite composers and a man who apparently shared many of Hitler’s bigotries; yet he was unquestionably an extraordinarily talented composer.  Lord Byron is said to have committed incest. One could compile an enormous list of well-regarded writers who were, among other things, alcoholics, sexual predators, or who otherwise broke basic rules of social decency and decorum of their times. Is there a statute of limitations on moral judgement, or do we simply let bad behavior slide into the background over time, absent a time-dependent trigger?

How do we decide whether to abandon the work of people who engage in appalling deviant conduct or whether to differentiate between the person and the product? If time is the determining factor, at what point might it be acceptable to watch and appreciate Kevin Spacey’s work in House of Cards or enjoy a screening of Annie Hall? Is it now, or will it ever be, acceptable to extol the quality of China Town or Oliver Twist, in spite of Roman Polanski’s roles in the films? The questions, I suppose, are these: 1) does the value of superior work by a person discovered to have significant moral failings diminish upon the discovery? and 2) at what point does time heal the wounds of inexcusable transgression to the extent that a person’s contributions matter more than a person’s mistakes?

My point in raising these questions is not to serve as an apologist for morally bankrupt actors and politicians and artists. Rather, it’s simply to examine the way in which we deliver judgment against people we feel have wronged us or society or even specific segments of society. By condemning the work of people who have failed us in some way, I think we tend to rob ourselves of what might be the bits of decency some of these people offer us. Yet I really do understand the urge to demonize not only the person but their work; after all, if we continue to praise the work, we might be seen as giving a “pass” to their behavior, right? Well, maybe. But…I don’t think so. I think we must differentiate the person from the products they deliver; otherwise, we risk defining value by the timeframe in which it is delivered. That is, a brilliantly-directed film is a brilliantly-directed film only BEFORE its director is discovered to have engaged in sexual harassment; afterward, the film is, like the director, sullied and ugly. That flies in the face of reason, in my view. I think it makes more sense, after the discovery, to say, “How utterly odd that such a piece of beauty can emerge from the mind of someone so ugly!” Or something of that nature.

None of my comments thus far have even attempted to examine judgment from the standpoint of a person’s actions versus his motives or even his actions versus psychological drives over which he might have no control. Do we blame the perpetrator for behaviors that arise not from intent, but from unchecked sickness? Oh, that question begins to snip around the edges of how we define justice and decency and tolerance and forgiveness. These are too heady for me to tackle right now. Maybe they’re too heady for anyone to ever tackle them successfully. At the moment, methinks there’s a flexible continuum of morality (or the lack thereof) and justice. Good people really do bad things. And bad people really do good things. We are given the difficult task of evaluating and judging both groups of people and applying mercy and justice in equal, or appropriate, measure. Somewhere in the mix, we discover there’s a need to demonstrate our outrage and show our empathy and our sympathy for both victim and perpetrator.

It’s not easy being a moral and just human being. But, it seems, it’s easy for society to shirk those responsibilities and, instead, take on the duties of The Furies, satisfied only with vengeance. What’s the answer? It seems to me that asking the question is enough to set loose the fury that’s sweeping the news media and public conversations today.  I think it’s reasonable to say the alleged predatory behaviors of people like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., et al, are indefensible while not necessarily condemning their life’s work in the same breath. But that’s just me. And that’s just in this moment. We shall see how this all plays out with those of us who were not the objects of their acts. But how will their victims deal with them and their work? All these questions, none with satisfactory answers!




About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Sitting in Judgment

  1. Thank you, Trish, for your comment.

  2. Trisha says:

    Good post, John. This is a subject that I’ve thought long and hard about, as well. In agreement with many of your points, here.

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