I was listening to a CBC podcast the other night, and there were a couple of people talking about their feelings about various famous authors and musicians. The conversation was really about whether or not our judgements about the behaviour of artists should influence how we feel about their art, and if we should decide to like or not like their art because we don’t agree with the conduct, opinions or morality of the artist.
I listened with some interest because the commentators were both people who identify themselves as lgbtqia2s (https://www.mic.com/articles/28093/lgbtqia-a-beginner-s-guide-to-the-great-alphabet-soup-of-queer-identity) and one of them also identified theirself as a gay black non-binary person. My immediate reaction to their conversation was curiosity because although I don’t identify myself as a member of a minority, generally, I do still identify as a person who has lived my life on the outside of established social, cultural and religious communities in which I live.
My political opinions are progressive within the Canadian meaning of that word meaning that I tend to share and support the politics of liberal leaning parties, and instinctively tend to feel sympathetic and supportive of anyone who self identifies as an outsider, whether as result of ethnicity, race, gender, ethical, sexual and religious views, appearance, etcetera. Which generally means that I’m somewhat judgemental about other people who I perceive as judgemental against all those people I’ve previously mentioned. So I’m inclined to be pretty judgemental about myself, since I know perfectly well that my own behaviour over my life has failed at times to live up to my own ethical, moral and social standards.
So the questions being raised are important to me. Is it safe for me to listen to music I like or even love, if it has been created or performed by someone I judge to have behaved badly? Say, like Michael Jackson, who now appears to have been a pedophile. Should we erase all of our collective memories of his music and dance, and never moonwalk again? Should we ban any mentions about Sir John A. MacDonald, who, in addition to being a drunk, a racist about first nations peoples and their rights, an outright unapologetic sexist. The fact that our nation exists because this man, and other similarly flawed men founded it continues to be true, even if I don’t like it. History is made by flawed men and women. Music is sung by creepy assholes. Great classical art was drawn by perverts we wouldn’t allow in our living rooms.
Should we hide the Mona Lisa, because her painter was a narrow minded bigot who was probably gay but denied homesexuality over and over again to gain social acceptability, not to mention contracts that paid for his work and allowed him to survive in times we can barely imagine.
I found it fascinating that these two commentators came to the conclusion that excluding people from your life because they happen to have been flawed, made terrible mistakes in their relationships, or even committed heinous crimes, should not necessarily mean that you deny the value and beauty of their art as fruit of the poison tree. Doing so would deny human beings the ability to grow, to make amends and try to do and be better than their worst selves. Doing so could remove the incentive for people to change and reflect on their worst behaviours, and thereby learn something.
Should I forever hate my father because of what he inflicted on me as a child, even in the certainty that he committed himself to looking after my younger sister for most of his life after she became a quadriplegic in her early twenties. He did bad things when he was younger, but did amazing things that made her life possible when it had become impossible. So I try to hate the behaviour I judge offensive and admire his enormous contributions to my sister. So I will never forget either, but I judge him to have been a deeply flawed man who showed the capacity for love. I love my father, but see him clearly for all that he was in his life, not just those things that harmed others but also those things he did that contributed.
Which is how I think we should look at historical and living people alike. We should make every effort to be our better selves, no matter how damaged we are or have been in our pasts. We should be as transparent as we can be, without expecting it of others. Fight for equality, justice and freedom, but make allowance for human frailty, both for ourselves and for others.