We all have our problematic favorites, and we keep gaining more each day. These include creators, authors, actors, athletes, and others who we find increasingly unsavory as we examine them more and more as people. It becomes especially difficult when that unsavory nature becomes apparent not just in their personal attributes and behaviors, but in the work they produce as well. And even if this person is held to scrutiny or condemned in the public sphere, we are confronted with the private individual decision whether or not to continue consuming their work. Basically, we know we should really hate these people, but why do they have to be so good?
There are people among us who, despite being horrified by his actions, still watch Louis C.K.’s comedy. I have many friends who extol H.P. Lovecraft, despite his abhorrent racism. And it is difficult to find one film buff who doesn’t hold, at minimum, one Woody Allen film dear to their heart. However, you will also find many people who will criticize those who are not willing to extend their moral compass to their cultural consumption. This is a difficult and controversial debate that is only becoming more and more relevant to us. We all have problematic favorites it seems, so what do we do with them?
There are, as I perceive it, two mainstream schools of philosophy on this subject. Attitudes which I would like to both examine and, of course, dismiss. The first approach goes something like this: That we ought to reject and not support those whose characters and/or work reflect values which we consider unacceptable. This is a very attractive, very lofty, and honestly agreeable view. Why would we want to buy someone’s book, music, or movie if the values they hold and interject into their work are, in our own summation, harmful? Why give them your cash instead of giving it to someone who’s not so morally acidic?
This view, despite being popular and rooted in good faith, falters in one huge regard. It should be acknowledged that the act of “voting with your dollar” or “being an ethical consumer” serve no purpose other than personal moral satisfaction. And that is not wrong; in fact personal moral satisfaction often makes us whole and happy people. But to pretend that basic consumer decisions, outside of any realm of serious economic weight, are equivocal to any kind of boycott is eschewed from reality. As lofty as we may be about our decision to boycott a creation, most of these cultural figures already have established bases of wealth and support which are very difficult to wipe out. In other words, Woody Allen is still going to make money and H.P. Lovecraft will stay dead. However, we should not discount our moral principles simply because they only satisfy ourselves.
The second view, just as misguided, acts as a response to the former view. It goes like this: No human is perfect. Therefore, we shouldn’t discount an author’s whole work due to a few moral shortcomings. Otherwise, we could find something wrong with everyone, and dismiss everyone.
This view is very popular among your “logic and reason” types, your “objective” types, and your “hear both sides” types (yes, I’m using those terms derogatorily). While it acknowledges a very basic truth, that humans are never perfect, it fails in leaving us without any kind of tool with which to effectively make moral decisions and gestures. The supposedly common-sense aphorism that we should “separate the artist from the art,” is really just a bumbled kind of moral relativity which leaves us unable to call a morally-defunct person morally defunct. At best, it’s a misstep at objectivity; at worst, it’s a safe position for privileged people to remain pugnaciously ignorant in consuming their problematic favorite’s work.
Just as writing, and any artistic platform, needs to be performed by moralistic artists, these things are of no consumptive use to us if we do not remain moralistic readers. The more knowledgeable answer and approach has never been to generalize and eliminate, nor has it been to ignore shortcomings in feigned objectivity. Acknowledging human life as being complicated to judge morally, and making the extra efforts to do so, has always been more fruitful. Amoral readers are bad, lazy readers. The moralistic reader of H.P. Lovecraft is, to me, worth a million times more than the non-moralistic, non-H.P. Lovecraft reader, and countless times worth more than one who reads him and makes no moral judgement at all.