I’m going to retread a little territory here because it’s been on my mind and what else is a blog good for if not to document how one’s thought processes evolve over time? Call it the Chris Brown Question for contemporary relevance, but it could equally be the Roman Polanski Problem, or the Pablo Picasso Predicament. That is, how do we reconcile professional respect or appreciation (Who doesn’t like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?) without condoning some horrifying and harmful behaviors?
I just finished Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder, about a team of researchers investigating ethically controversial new pharmaceuticals in the Amazon basin. A husband and wife duo have an argument about a well-regarded scientist who was also a chronic philanderer:
Nancy: “I’m not saying people don’t have affairs, even very decent people, let us be so lucky as to fall into that category. But we cannot unbraid the story of another person’s life and take out all the parts that don’t suit our purposes and put forth only the ones that do. He was a great scientist, I will grant you that, and by all accounts a true charismatic, but he was also deeply unfaithful to two women and frankly that bothers me. It bothers me that the man you say you wanted to become was a lifelong philanderer.”
Alan: “We can take the life apart. We do it all the time. Picasso put out cigarettes on his girlfriends and we don’t love the paintings any less for it. Wagner was a fascist and I can hum you every bar in the opening of Die Walkure.
This argument doesn’t quite capture the Chris Brown Question because infidelity, while personally painful, is not high on my list of “bad behaviors.” Compared to, say, beating your girlfriend, raping a 13-year-old, or putting out cigarettes on humans, it’s pretty mundane. That said, the language of this passage helps articulate how I think about this stuff.
There’s the bad behavior that makes one a lousy role model (infidelity, selfishness, etc) and then there’s the Bad Behavior that makes you a shitty human (abusing people, sex crimes, etc). Does that distinction hold up? I don’t know… abuse and violence stem from someplace…and where does redemption and rehabilitation fit in? Bah. Pesky humans and their complicated psyches!
And if you’re someone in that second category, the capital-B category, can I really appreciate your art/music/writing as separate from the Bad Behavior? I don’t know.
This has not been a productive post because I have no answers. What do you think? If you stop dancing when Chris Brown comes on at the club, do you also walk by the Picasso room at the art museum?
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