Some Gaffes are Bigger than Others
The recent tidal wave of cancel culture has rightly resulted in the ostracism of certain toxic individuals, but when that person is someone you previously admired, is it still OK to enjoy their work?
by Jonathan Hart | 22th December 2020
I did not immediately appreciate the music of the Smiths. Having first been introduced to them in my early years at secondary school, and with a nascent musical diet which at that time largely centred on Detroit techno and Warp Records, there was simply no room for Mancunian post-punk miserablism in my life. It was another six years or so before they chimed with me, and I can’t really articulate why the change was so sudden. Their music has often resonated with social outcasts and lovesick teenagers, and I wouldn’t consider myself to have fallen into either category, now or then. There was simply an ineffable quality about the music and lyrics – the kitchen-sink narratives of Sillitoe and Osbourne rendered in Dorothea Lange-esque monochrome by the reverberant jangle of Johnny Marr’s Rickenbacker – that somehow made perfect sense to me as an indie-fixated 18-year-old.
It was not always so disheartening to observe Morrissey’s public image in tandem with the music of the Smiths and his solo career (not that I cared much for the latter beyond Your Arsenal.) He was always an anomaly, the kind of quasi-intellectual who wanted to be Oscar Wilde but came across as more of a Will Hunting, somebody who thinks nothing can be learned about the world that can’t be read in a book, who pronounces ‘plagiarise’ with a hard ‘g’ as though he’d only ever come across the word in written form. None of that particularly bothered me – I don’t buy into the idea that a person can be grouped or compartmentalised by the sorts of things they enjoy. Most of the time, I wasn’t even sure whether to take it seriously. I didn’t bat an eyelid when he suggested long hair was an offence which should be punishable by death, or that the Beckhams should be flogged for seemingly no other reason than because he doesn’t like them. To me, these were merely soundbites with no genuine intent behind them, aimed at reinforcing his image as the public equivalent of that irascible yet mildly amusing uncle we all know, who complains about anything and everything through Christmas dinner before falling asleep in front of the TV at 7. However, his recent emergence as a spokesperson for the far right – amongst other things, claiming without any evidence that all acid attacks are committed by non-whites, or suggesting Sadiq Khan ‘cannot talk properly’, which does not appear to have been anything other than a literal reference to his heritage – has proven to be a rather more bitter pill to swallow. I’m far less inclined to identify as a fan these days for fear that people will see this as an indicator of my harbouring like-minded views, even if no greater authority than Johnny Marr himself has gone on record as saying Morrissey’s views “do not reflect the Smiths.”
Illustration by Jago Henderson
There are a number of recent analogues which readers may perhaps more easily identify with. Even as someone who has not read any of the books, it is virtually impossible to have avoided the planet-enveloping phenomenon that is the Harry Potter franchise; it’s quite telling that typing ‘Is it still OK to like…’ into Google returns the boy wizard as the number one result, with the Smiths following just behind. And I absolutely understand the appeal, even if it’s something that will not ever tempt me, like putting sweetcorn on a pizza. So it follows that I understand entirely why fans of the series should be so disappointed with JK Rowling’s emergence as a figurehead for the transphobic, her recent Twitter history a shameful series of tirades denying the right for trans women to be considered anything other than men. Equally, I also appreciate why many of those disappointed souls have not gathered up all their Potter paraphernalia with the intention of burning it on a ceremonial bonfire, just as people continue to watch Father Ted and the IT Crowd despite their creator sharing the same transphobic views. But it continues to be a bone of contention; once these opinions have been espoused in public, there’s no going back, so is it still acceptable to enjoy the work these people have produced?
In his 1972 collection of essays Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, the philosopher Sir Karl Popper posited the idea of three worlds: the physical world, the world of mental experiences, and the man-made world of ‘objective contents of thought,’ i.e. the physical manifestation of knowledge in written or electronically-stored form. The maintenance of this third world is predicated on the propagation of learning across generations. Were some catastrophe to destroy all of civilisation save for the libraries, a new generation could rebuild using the knowledge left behind. Should that same catastrophe destroy the libraries too, humanity would effectively have to return to square one, as all of its carefully-stored knowledge would no longer be accessible, and would have to be re-learned. Popper presumably thought of this catastrophe as being a physical disaster, perhaps a flood of biblical proportions, but in the information age the notion of the entire contents of the internet being erased in one fell swoop arguably carries the same connotations.
I’m no philosopher, but I feel this is a useful analogue to the issue at hand: in my view, if we accept Popper’s hypothesis, we can’t limit our knowledge only to that which we know is good. Absent a frame of reference within which to determine whether a school of thought is unacceptable, those same thoughts will simply continue to resurface. It is necessary to leave a legacy of both the good and the bad, so that future generations are capable of understanding why records of these objective contents of thought are not conducive to the preservation of a healthy, functioning societal model.
It’s perhaps useful to consider examples where the divide between creator and work is less distinct, where that work virtually acts as a signpost for the misguided to align with its creator’s unacceptable views. Consider, for example, DW Griffith’s outrageously racist Birth of a Nation; one of its central characters is a South Carolina lieutenant governor who orders a clampdown on Ku Klax Klan activity in the wake of a racially-motivated lynching, and who campaigns for and eventually secures the passing of legislation allowing marriages between people of different racial heritage. This person is presented as the antagonist. Such was the film’s promotion of the KKK’s cause that it is widely credited with re-energising the movement. That it was subsequently preserved in the National Film Registry in 1992 is not an indicator that its inflammatory rhetoric was considered acceptable so recently – it’s perhaps slightly reassuring that there was a sufficiently significant backlash, even in the 1910s, that the NAACP spearheaded a campaign to have the film banned. Personally, I prefer to think of its preservation as a means of illustrating to new generations what was considered acceptable in the past, and that our repulsion by it now is an indicator of the progress the human race has made since.
I am loath to give people like these the oxygen of publicity, even in the limited quantities offered by the student newspaper of one of the country’s smallest universities. However, it is necessary to make a distinction: there is a significant difference between art produced by awful people, and art made with the specific intention of converting its consumers into awful people. Listening to the Smiths hasn’t made me abandon my socialist ideals and pledge allegiance to whatever batshit cause Laurence Fox is peddling this week, just as listening to Bowie’s seminal Berlin trilogy didn’t instil in me a desire to move to the German capital and restrict my diet to milk and cocaine. It’s all very well condemning those with offensive and misguided views to a kind of online damnatio memoriae, but let’s face it: we probably all know a depressing number of people who share the same archaic, intolerant views. If we immediately destroyed, dismissed or withheld the work of any person who had ever expressed a disagreeable opinion, we would spend the rest of our lives with nothing but Tom Hanks movies to entertain us.
I don’t believe for a second that your beliefs are coded into your DNA from day dot, that there is an allele or gene which imparts upon you a hatred of your fellow person. You are shaped by your experiences, the good people – your family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues – and the bad. Art doesn’t make people bigoted; bigots make people bigoted. In continuing to read, listen to, or watch the works produced by these people, do not think of yourself as helping to perpetuate the views these people articulate in public. Most of these people are already sufficiently wealthy that your contributions are a virtual drop in the ocean, and if we’re talking about musicians, the average earnings per stream of a song are less than 1p, which certainly makes me feel slightly better about listening to The Queen is Dead even if it is another can of worms. Your consumption of their work is not an endorsement of them as a person, nor does it confer any sort of relationship between you. Continuing to interpret and discuss these works might even open up useful dialogue going forward, and allow us to utilise them, as suggested earlier, as barometers of how we shouldn’t act rather than how we should.