the Ty Cobb principle

Right now we’re in one of those times when people feel anguished about whether to support artists who they feel are immoral or politically undesirable, and where much art is coming out that is celebrated for being good because it parrots back to the viewer their own assumed politics. (This is how we got the Oscar-winning trainwreck Crash, but whatever.) In this context, especially with JK Rowling’s recent remarks, people once again ask, can I enjoy this media when I disagree so fundamentally with its creator? Can I separate the art from the artist?

So: Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb was, by most accounts, a racist and a bigot and a mean drunk. He was a bad guy. He’s not the kind of guy we want to praise or emulate. So here’s my question: did Ty Cobb have a good on-base percentage?

The answer, objectively, is yes; his career on-base percentage is .433, and that’s for a guy who played professional baseball for a quarter century. That is in fact a very good on-base percentage. Now: imagine someone objects and says, “But his on-base percentage can’t be good! He was a racist!” I think most of us would agree that this would be an odd stance to take. Whether he was a racist or not does not affect his talent for getting on base. The fact that he was a racist is relevant to understanding his character, and anyone who might be inclined to admire him personally should be discouraged from doing so. Just as opinions about Rowling should be subject to influence by her disturbing comments on trans issues. But his on-base percentage? His racism just doesn’t factor in. It’s simply not relevant to the discussion. And it’s the same with Rowling (or anyone) and the art that they create. It’s simply a category error to judge one by the other.

I’m not suggesting that the appreciation of art is as objective as the calculation of baseball statistics. I am suggesting that human beings produce things that are independent of their character, and separating the two is natural and easy. Richard Feynman was I’m sure as sexist as they say; how could that undermine the scientific validity of his scientific findings? It couldn’t. These things just aren’t connected.

And by the way, JK Rowling will live out the rest of her life as a billionaire irrespective of the individual behavior of you and everyone else. If you want to boycott her work to prevent any of your money from going to her I understand and respect your decision, but if you’re conflicted, I think you can be forgiven for not boycotting a person who will never, ever feel the effects either way.

Update: It seems modern historians have revised the conventional wisdom on Cobb’s racism? Apparently he was even an advocate for the integration of baseball. Seems like I picked a bad example to name the principle after. Bad job by me.