It happens sometimes, especially in today’s social media world: the creator of something you love, be it a book, movie, tv show, comic book, or some other work of art, has a bad take. We’re not talking about your garden-variety difference of opinion. (Despite what the Internet would have you believe, people who like pineapple on their pizza and people who don’t can, in fact, live in peace together.) We’re talking about a serious bad take, one that denies the fundamental humanity of a whole group of people or supports acts of violence in the real world. What do you do then?
The first steps are obvious enough. You can speak out against them, whether online or off. You can affirm your support for the people they targeted, whether publicly to the world at large or privately to the people you care about.
You can watch how the creator responds, whether they learn and grow from the experience or double down on their bad ideas. A lot of us have had to learn to challenge the bad ideas we absorbed from the culture around us, and most of us didn’t do it in public with an audience of millions. It’s fair to say that if someone has reached an age where they are producing art for a mass audience, they should really have gotten past basic prejudices and misjudgments, but if somehow they haven’t, it’s better that they do it now than not at all. Whether you find their actions convincing or sufficient is up to you. You don’t owe anyone your forgiveness, no matter what they may say or do. You’re also not wrong if you choose to give it. You are the only one who gets to decide what is enough for you.
If someone’s bad ideas are egregious enough to merit it, you can stop giving them money. Don’t buy their latest book or a ticket to their new movie. This may get complicated if their work is tangled up with the work of other people whose good work you still want to support, but loss of revenue is one of the biggest pressures you can put on a company or organization to drop a problematic actor or cut ties with a writer who has spewed hate. You can stop giving them attention, too. Unfollow or even block them on social media. Don’t give clicks to articles or posts about them or their latest work.
What about the works you already have? Do you have to clear their books off your shelves or throw away the DVDs? You can, of course, if you feel it’s right for you. If your enjoyment of those pieces of art would forever be tainted by their creator’s asinine or prejudiced comments, then there is no need for you to keep them. Like forgiveness, it’s a personal decision you can only make for yourself.
But what if you want to keep them? What if there are still things you love about those works, despite their creator’s attack of foot-in-mouth disease? How do you continue to enjoy them?
I spend a fair amount of my time reading books that were written by people who were absolutely wrong about a lot of important things ranging from the intellectual capacity of women to the morality of slavery. Much of this I read simply for my work, not for pleasure, but there are ancient texts I enjoy, some I have read over and over again for sheer delight, like the masterfully-told stories of Herodotus, the heroic deeds of the Homeric epics, Sappho’s longing love poetry, Martial’s wickedly funny epigrams, and others. Even without having a social media feed from any of these authors, I am confident that most of them believed in things we would find abhorrent today. How can I continue to enjoy their work?
The art is not the artist. This is the principle known in literary criticism as “the death of the author” (which is less dire than it sounds). What we create exists outside of ourselves. Once an author publishes a novel or a director releases a movie, their creative work is done. It is up to the audience to decide how they will receive and understand the work. Our experiences of art are not dictated wholly by the creator’s intentions but are a complicated interplay of our own thoughts and emotions with the artist’s ideas. Those experiences are personal and unique, and they do not depend on the moral qualities or opinions of the artist.
When I go back to the Iliad, I know that I am reading the product of a culture whose values were sharply different from my own on gender roles, the morality of war, the acceptability of slavery, and many other fundamental questions. It is impossible to read the epic without facing all of those differences. Many of them are so deeply woven into the story that it simply would not be possible to tell the story without them. The Iliad is the story of male warriors fighting over the possession of a beautiful woman; without any of these elements, it would cease to be the Iliad. And yet there are things to enjoy in the epic, without excusing or ignoring the cultural assumptions it is grounded in. Some of the most powerful passages in the work are those in which the humanity of individual characters comes through despite the cultural baggage around them. Helen has moments in the Iliad where we see her fear, her grief, her frustration and anger about the war being fought for her, and we glimpse her as a whole person, just as complex as any of the warrior-heroes around her. The final image of Achilles and Priam weeping together over their lost loved ones is a moving expression of the power of human compassion to overcome hatred. There is beauty and value in these things, and I can enjoy them while still being aware of the context around them.
If there is a book you love but whose author recently revealed themselves as a bigoted ass, it’s all right for you to still love the book and treasure the memories of how it made you feel when you first read it. Your experience of that book belongs to you, not to the author. Once their words and ideas entered your imagination, they became part of you, as much as any other experience in your past. You don’t have to excuse the author for their bad take, but neither does their bad take have to tarnish your enjoyment of their book.
It’s also okay if you decide that you can’t pick up that book again. You are the only person who knows what is right for you.
Here there be opinions!