Part One- John Wayne Rediscovered
Recently, an old Playboy interview with John Wayne from nearly 50 years ago was rediscovered which revealed some horrendous beliefs he held about race relations, white supremacy being a good thing, and homosexuality. This sparked outrage with the usual suspects who a) don’t contextualize anything and b) know nothing about John Wayne. Now, let me preface this with the painfully obvious but excruciatingly important detail that I am, by no means, defending John Wayne or what he said. In fact, I’d even go so far as to posit that his opinions were particularly racist for a racist white guy in the early 1970s. They were vile, stupid, and yes, offensive but- they were not made by someone alive or of our generation or even the two before it.
If you have ever watched a single one of Wayne’s movies, you simply wouldn’t figure him for some kind of liberal. You might even, to take a very minuscule leap, gather that he was of a very old, patriarchal, white-bred kind of background. That doesn’t make what he said okay but to be shocked or outraged by someone’s words, I would at least attest that you’d have to have thought of them in some other kind of context. Basically, it’s not that surprising to learn an old white star, who was by then in his 60s, held some bigoted beliefs. And it doesn’t make much sense (and this is the fundamental point) to make a career of sifting through an old star’s interviews from decades ago with a modern lens of morality. Years from now we will undoubtedly be judged for what we did, yes, but for the likes of Wayne, we should probably still be able to enjoy his output while acknowledging that he wasn’t exactly a symbol of tolerance.
Part Two- The Rise of Cancel Culture
The modern trend of social justice, in the forms of #metoo, political correctness, and cancel culture has risen and taken storm as a result of frustrations built upon years of a lack accountability on the part of powerful figures. The courts can be slow to deliver proper punishments, if any, in even the most high profile cases. Political systems have been infected with a slew of problems, so cumbersome that they’ve become almost insurmountable. And even shows like The Big Bang Theory continue to thrive despite the fact that they are clearly dreadful. In such times, the mantle of social media can appear attractive. It has given a voice to the voiceless. It has helped promote awareness of issues we never would have thought of. It even gets you quick customer service where all other avenues fail. It’s also dangerous however.
The problem with social media is not so much that it can present biased, clickbait visions or news pieces, without much resistance, but that it’s populated with the worst kind of people you could ever listen to. Any given day on Facebook, I can scroll through my newsfeed, and find a barrage of comments on an article that has obviously not been read in full or countered. Too many people don’t want to have their viewpoints challenged so they cling to familiar publications or channels (like liberals for the Huffington Post and conservatives for Breitbart) and ignore that which falls between, taking in sensationalist headlines which eventually build up a picture of someone or some idea without much shade or nuance.
I don’t want to get into bi-partisanship however. I’ve impressed the above point only to account for the lack of accountability people afford themselves when they interact with others on Twitter, Facebook, etc. They react instinctively and without good measure when allegations arise, which brings us back the way of cancel culture. Let’s take the not-so-comfortable example of notorious racist Liam Neeson. The thing about Neeson is he’s not our classic idea a notorious racist. Some say he’s just another human being who admitted to a detestable moment in his life, when he sought vengeance for a friend of his who had been raped, by roaming the streets and looking for a “black bastard to kill.”
Let’s unpack this slowly and carefully. First of all, it was racist and horrible and I don’t think anyone can expect any black person to take this account without offense or anxiety. After all, this is the kind of hate many have had to deal with their whole lives, resulting in unwarranted arrests of murders. Neeson’s story, however, was not happened upon by some journalist. He told it himself, as a way of admitting his own guilt, clearing his conscience perhaps, and illustrating the the deep-rootedness of bigotry in society. He felt shame, yes, but he also said he could’ve killed someone. So, do we #cancel him or at least, evaluate the details of his story first?- because it if both a typical and untypical example of prejudice influencing a person’s mindset.
Putting aside whatever conclusions you may come to, the problem for me with this story, was how it got reported and discussed by the majority of people in social and regular media. For one, many seemingly missed the point where Neeson asked for the details of his friend’s attacker (height, hair, etc.) as well as the details of the story as a whole, and focused immediately on the headlines. For another, people called him an “idiot” for simply bringing the story up which granted was stupid, given he was promoting a movie. If we can’t discuss difficult topics like this however with some grace, how can we begin to actually solve them?
Part Three- Art and Morality
Woven into the tapestry of this debate on cancel culture is the thread of modern morality and “wokeness”. Can we separate art from the artist or do we need to stop making excuses for facilitating the careers of harmful individuals like R. Kelly?
Undoubtedly, a few good things have arisen in this current climate of social justice. The #metoo movement, for instance, finally got a great many people to pay attention to the rampant culture of sexual harassment dominating work spaces. It impressed upon men, in particular, that if you behaved a certain way, you would be held to account (not that it’s been wholly effective or noticed everywhere). We’ve come to appreciate that racism is systematic beyond the plain and obvious insults and attacks of past generations. We tolerate less so that more are accepted. We’ve also come to confront an issue that never seemed like much of an issue too; toxic fandom.
In a sense it’s easy enough to cancel a celebrity like Neeson or Kevin Spacey by refusing to entertain any more of their work. With someone like R. Kelly, it’s tougher because he had a large fan base and produced many hits, for himself and an array of other artists. A radio station can withdraw “Ignition” from the airwaves but they can’t exactly strip it of its appeal. And what about Michael Jackson then? The controversial Leaving Neverland documentary, which aired in our parts last week, saw two fresh allegations presented over the course of four hours against the late King of Pop. Are people really going to forget or condemn songs like “Billie Jean”? Some radio stations have already begun to stop playing these, on the basis of this wound being “too fresh”. Many of his fans however, on the opposite end of this spectrum, are flat out denying the validity of these allegations. Their concerns aren’t without logic but as documentary favorite Louis Theroux has pointed out, they can act “willfully blind” in the name of their hero.
That’s where we come to the idea of toxic fandom as a tide fighting against #cancel culture. It’s a lot easier to stand by an artist like Michael Jackson who’s greatly influenced you than it is to accept the allegations leveled against him. It’s almost too much to bear for people who want everything about this icon to be pure and unquestionable. In this sense, perhaps the trend of social justice is doing us a necessary, if painful service, like ripping a bandage off. We need to learn to accept our favorite stars might not be as great in their personal lives as they are in their art which has been true throughout the course of history.
Balance will be the key to all of this and it will take some time but I don’t think it’s necessary to discard the works of these fallen giants. After all, MJ opened a lot of doors for black artists in the industry. That can’t be taken away from him, just as Cosby’s influence on comedy can’t be eradicated. The fans don’t need to feel guilty for enjoying these people’s work but they should accept that deification of such figures gives way to a toxic and irresponsible culture, where abuse of power rests comfortably and heartache inevitably follows. In extreme cases such as theirs, we cannot turn a blind eye to their conduct (alleged or proven) but we should also not shackle ourselves to the notion that every celebrity, politician, or Twitter provocateur deserves to be cancelled and erased from history. Nuance is key, redemption is possible, and forgiveness is not at all a weak act.