Embracing the moral gray in the age of internet justice

Do we support “cancelled” artists?


Mehroz Kapadia

By Bhavya Pant, Assistant Op/Ed Editor

In early October last year, the University of Massachusetts hockey team made a notable change to their game format. They permanently removed from script the “Rock and Roll” song behind the fan favorite “Hey, you suck!” goal chant. This change was made rather abruptly, and with little explanation from UMass Athletics. It wasn’t until the Daily Collegian’s Amin Touri highlighted the deeply problematic history of the song’s creator Gary Glitter, that fans were made privy to the motivation behind this change.

Glitter is a repeat sex offender and a college sports program wanting to distance itself from such an individual is understandable. As a UMass hockey fan, myself, I ultimately made peace with this decision. My love for the sport does not hinge on the existence of a single song. That said, I must admit I was sad to see it go, and the resulting inner conflict led me to reconsider the age-old dilemma of separating the art from the artist.

When an artist does something illegal or immoral, is it possible to still be a fan of their work? Or is the art, like its creator, now irredeemable? Genuinely answering this question requires us to look past our gut reaction and to reconcile with our own cognitive dissonance. Truth is that there is hardly a uniform standard in our society’s treatment of art created by problematic artists. Consider Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and David Bowie – all accused of committing sexual crimes against minors. While R. Kelly’s music has been blacklisted from many radio stations, little protest is heard regarding Jackson or Bowie. Similarly, many have called for boycotting Chris Brown ever since he was found guilty of domestic abuse. But the work of John Lennon, who openly admitted to the same, is still untainted. What about an artist makes us more or less inclined to shun their work? Surely, the severity of the crime committed impacts this decision. After all, there exists a hierarchy of anti-social behavior in society.

I wouldn’t be as eager to boycott Glitter if he were a pick-pocketer or a jaywalker. But sexual misconduct is where most people rightly draw a hard line. I suspect there is another, less objective factor that also colors our judgment – our pre-existing feelings about the art before the immorality of the artist is revealed. At least this is what differentiates my treatment of Chris Brown from that of the Beatles. I was never a big fan of Brown’s music and so given my newfound knowledge of his reprehensible behavior, I have no qualms in “cancelling” him. I cannot say the same for the Lennon, however, whose actions I equally disapprove of but whose music I hold too dearly to let go of.

Say you continue to engage with the art of a problematic artist, how far would you go? Would you wear a t-shirt with their face on it? When they release new music, would you buy tickets to see them in concert? Maybe not. This brings us to an argument commonly made against separating the art from the artist – that we must financially “punish” celebrities for their immoral behavior. By financially supporting someone, we create incentives for them to replicate their work in the future. But this decision too is not devoid of its complications. It’s easy to financially boycott a solo artist, but art is rarely created in isolation. Thus, financially punishing an artist means we punish many other innocent people – such as writers, camera crew or background singers – whose livelihoods are tied to that of the artist. Moreover, who are we to punish an individual outside of the criminal justice system? This social media vigilantism or “internet justice” model purports to fill gaps in our laws by dis-incentivizing inappropriate behavior. But courts exist precisely because the mob sees no reason. As I pointed out above, mob rule is riddled with biases and inconsistencies. The justice system, despite its many flaws, at least tries to uphold a uniform standard.

Another argument against separating the art from the artist appeals to ubiquity. Why hold onto the work of problematic artists, it argues, when there are many unproblematic artists out there. Again, the underlying assumption here is that appreciating someone’s art implies a subtle endorsement of their lifestyle or social values. But, as author Coleman Hughes points out, “how can that be when we’re in the dark about the social values and behaviors of most artists out there, especially those from the pre-internet era.” Besides, every artist is but one tweet or exposé away from being revealed to be a terrible person. Are we to hold our breaths until we can no longer enjoy their creation? To me, that seems like a sad existence.

Part of the problem with the internet justice model is that it tries to hold artists to some super-human standard, when in reality, they are like most people – flawed. This does not in the least excuse their behavior, but it makes more room for contradictions. As journalist Zoe Strimpel points out, “Dickens was both misogynistic and deeply racist and a committed Democrat and an opponent of slavery and his work deserves to be read in all these ways.”

If you’re no closer to making a judgment on this issue than you were at the start of this article, I have done my job. Separating the art from the artist is a hard problem, one whose answer I do not claim to know. Even author Clint Margrave who wrote an entire long form in Quillette magazine, arguing for this separation, recently admitted in a Wiki letter that he had his doubts. Personally, I choose to make this judgment on a case-to-case basis. If you choose to go down the boycott route, more power to you. You have every right to exercise your financial freedom. If you continue to engage, no judgment. Anyone who insists that either is the only “correct choice” is ignoring reality.

Bhavya Pant is an Assistant OpEd editor and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @bhavya_pant