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.
You will have likely observed that social media has long since become a kind of perpetual fox hunt where a target is identified for social extermination and everybody joins in. Every morning on Twitter that’s the essential question: who will we hound today?
What you may notice is that those most dedicated to escalating every conflict into an excommunication are not the name brand blue-check types but low-follower, low-engagement accounts. (Which is no insult, or not from me; I was never a high-follower account myself.) Why?
I wrote a piece years ago, when I was on Twitter, and called them Accelerants – people who seem to exist only to make conflict on social media nastier. And I think the really essential piece is this: no one cares enough about them individually to know how morally they act themselves, and so they can engage in moral censure of everyone and everything. If you are enough of a visible personality that people might track your history, people can respond to your moral judgments by pointing out areas where you yourself have failed to act morally, or at least, to areas where your moral beliefs appear to be inconsistent. But if no one cares about you enough to remember what you’ve said and done in the past, you’re free. And in the middle of a Twitter mobbing there’s so many low-follower accounts coming at people that no one could possibly respond to them all even if they cared enough to know something about them. They draw power from their powerlessness; they have the strength of a faceless horde. Facelessness, after all, means there can be no accountability.
It is true that claims of hypocrisy are never dispositive for solving actual moral questions and that a tu quoque is a fallacy. But it’s also true that “you should follow the same basic moral rules that you judge others for failing” and “those who judge should take care as they themselves are subject to judgment” are pretty elementary (and elemental) aspects of navigating the human moral universe. There’s no possibility of that when you have all of these accounts that are for all intents and purposes burners, ones that combine literal pseudonymity with the inherent anonymity of being a face in the crowd – especially when that face is some avatar chosen for its disposability.
Anonymity breaks morality. It removes the basic sense of skin-in-the-game that’s necessary for accountability and adult conduct. It erases the requirement to be morally consistent and eliminates any sense of shame about shaming others. (You have a plank in your own eye, I assure you. We all do. You are not the exception.) And social media gives anonymity to a vast army of people who have, according to all available evidence, nothing but ill intent, the desire to do harm. Is it any wonder all of it is a horror show?
It’s a misconception that popular people in high school are all sociopaths. In general people who are popular in high school are popular because they are friendly and kind; the common stereotype only persists because a certain type of person writes the culture, and that type of person always requires a revenge narrative, an arc that ends with them rising above their previously-reviled station, even if that revulsion is largely imagined. (Indifference, now, that’s a genuine quantity.)
But to the degree that the popular are cruel, it is important to realize: it is never the queen bee in high school who is the cruelest. That is maybe the biggest misconception of all. The queen bee is actually often quite magnanimous, and for the reason a lot of people are magnanimous: because they can, because it costs them nothing. No, it’s not the queen bee who is cruel. It’s the lieutenant bees, the seconds in command, the other cool girls who have ascended to a high station but can only dream of being the queen bee herself. It is through them, typically unconsciously on the part of the queen bee, that the cruelty is meted out. No one is more threatened by the possibility of someone else climbing up the totem pole than the ones whose grasp on it is still precarious. Meanwhile the one on top can gaze down with equanimity and grace. This is the way of queen bees.
Remember that as you go about your day today.