frederick douglass, susan b. anthony, and the ridiculous (and dangerous) quest for moral purity

Reading David Blight's monumental Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, I learned some facts about both Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony that were very unpleasant and, at least in Douglass' case, baffling.

This brought me back to a topic I've revisited several times on wmtc: the rejection of art or culture or historical admiration, based on some moral or ethical failing of the individual.

I only want to know about perfect people

I was amazed to learn that Douglass himself could be racist! In his speeches, he used the stereotype of the drunken Irish immigrant to bolster his case for universal suffrage: if this lout is allowed to vote, why not the Negro? Douglass also had a huge blind spot regarding Native Americans. He would contrast the civilized, educated Negro with the Native American who preferred their own savage and backwards ways to that of the white settler.

Douglass did (verbally) to Native Americans what white oppressors were doing to African Americans -- while Indigenous people were being slaughtered, herded into death marches, and forcibly displaced at the very time he was speaking!

Susan B. Anthony was classist. Her entire life was dedicated to the cause of universal suffrage, but at some heated and contentious points in the struggle, she was willing to throw working class and poor women under the bus to achieve suffrage for the educated classes, as long as that included women.

It was difficult and disturbing to learn this.

From what I've read and seen, many people, knowing this, would now write off Douglass as a piece-of-shit racist, and dismiss Anthony as an elitist, therefore unworthy of their time, thought, education, or admiration.

Douglass and Anthony were both brilliant, radical activists, light-years head of their time. They fought ceaselessly for the good, and they changed the world -- they changed the status of women and African Americans in the world. In an era when change moved more slowly, their activism was even more radical. Their obvious flaws do not outweigh their achievements. Nor should the discovery of these flaws alter their prominent place in progressive history.

It's not possible to understand the movements for African American and women's freedom and equality in North America without knowing the work of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Their individual flaws don't change that.

One strike and you're out

Back in the 21st Century, two feminist writers and social critics -- women whose work I have read, loved, and admired -- have recently made me cringe, one with a racist "joke", the other with transphobia. This hurts me. I don't understand it. I wish it were otherwise.

It also doesn't change the good that both women have accomplished, their excellent thinking and writing on other topics, the work they have done for the greater good. But many outraged leftists are ready to (metaphorically) burn their books and boycott them altogether.

I didn't realize how far this trend had gone (typical me) until I read a letter in a newspaper. The letter writer was sad, baffled, and a bit frightened after hearing that a university student "had thrown [famous writer]'s book in a trash can" because he learned the writer had made racist statements in the 1920s. Don't admire the man? Sure. Refuse to read his work, because you don't agree with all his views? Time to re-think.

To experience art, I must approve of everything the artist has done and thought

People who reject books, music, paintings, essays, any created work, because of the revealed misdeeds and opinions of the creator will soon find themselves in a very small world of narrow opinions. This is a sad way to go through life -- and a dangerous one. Great art has been created by flawed people. Why is it so difficult to separate art from artist? In the political and social justice sphere, why is it so difficult to accept that great deeds have been (and will continue to be) accomplished by people who were not perfect?

When I last wrote about this topic -- dylan farrow and woody allen: a feminist, a rape survivor, and a woody allen fan weighs in -- I included this.
I was talking about books with a friend from the library. I mentioned I had re-read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls before I went to Spain, and how much I enjoyed it, how it made me appreciate Hemingway in a whole new light. My friend said, "I won't read anything by him. He was a bad person - a womanizer, a drunk, a disloyal friend." She had read The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, and now she will not experience the man's art.

Let's leave aside the fact that The First Wife was a novel; in this case, it doesn't matter if the novel was 100% factual or not. I was amazed that someone would choose not to experience art because of something they know about the artist. The implications of this are enormous - and absurd. Shall we lay bare every artist's life story, examine their motives, their worldview, their moral code, pass judgment on them, then if we find the artist to be upstanding moral citizens, read their books, see their plays, view their paintings? I don't subscribe to a stereotype of the artist as outside the bounds of morality, but neither do I set myself up as judge and jury. When it comes to art, I'm not there for the artist's personal life. I'm there for the art. An artist may choose to infuse her work with morality, but the personal moral code of the artist is irrelevant.
(If you bother to read that post, more good and valid nuances are discussed in comments.)

As I've written in the past, no one will die if they don't read Hemingway or see a Woody Allen movie. But who will be read? Who will be deemed pure enough? How much must we know before we decide that we can engage with this person's work?

Bear in mind I'm not referring to work that is overtly sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and otherwise bigoted. Picasso may have been a misogynist, but Guernica is not.

If  we continually stomp off because Famous Writer made a racist statement or Agent of Historical Change was a flawed human being, how will we experience the larger world -- the world outside our own heads?

Holy, holy, holier than thou

I have many questions for people who take this position.

Can you not disagree with someone and still appreciate their art? Do you only experience art created by people whose worldview you share? Do you vet the artist before sampling the art? Whose art will be pure enough for you?

As your world shrinks, as the variety of ideas and creativity that you engage with diminishes, aren't you engaged in something that is the opposite of progressive thought? Do tolerance and compassion come into play? Does the zero-tolerance policy you hate in the right wing look better on the left?

And above all, I want to ask, For What Purpose? What does this moral indignation give you? How does it benefit you, or benefit the world?

Do you imagine you are more just, more moral, because you seek to purge yourself of association with the morally imperfect?

At bottom, I see this behaviour as self-righteous, limiting, and utterly useless.

No need to be extreme

Of course there are extreme examples (or we can invent some) that blow a hole in this line of thought. There are opinions and associations that are so grossly repellent that we can never admire the person or experience their art without the knowledge of those opinions intruding.

That has always existed and is not the problem.

The problem is discovering a shred of unpleasantness, a non-perfect person, a person with prejudices -- especially a non-feminist man or a racist white person -- and shunning them from your mental landscape.


impudent strumpet said...

Can you not disagree with someone and still appreciate their art?

Yes, frequently.

And the external observer has no way to tell when I'm doing this.

To the external observer, it looks exactly like agreeing with the artist and appreciating their art, or like being unaware of why I might disagree with the artist. Or it might look like I haven't gotten around to engaging with the art or I'm not aware of the art, depending on what I talk about.

(I have more thoughts on other points, but they need some time to crystalize)

impudent strumpet said...

And above all, I want to ask, For What Purpose? What does this moral indignation give you? How does it benefit you, or benefit the world?

These questions are not relevant, because it isn't a deliberate choice on my part, it's a visceral revulsion.

When art speaks to me on a deep level, it worms its way into my heart and my mind and affects everything, even when I'm not directly engaging with the art. It becomes an intrinsict part of me, it's inside me.

So if I later learn that the artist is morally reprehensible, there's a deep, visceral sense of "EWWWWWW, it's inside me!!!!!!"

It's like if you've eaten some food and later learn that there was something truly repulsive inside it - whatever is the most disgusting, stomach-churning thing you can imagine eating - so your immediate uncontrolled response is to gag.

What is the purpose of gagging? What does it give you? How does it benefit you or the world?

(And, of course, with art it's even worse, because I've been emotionally involved with it and it builds me and changes me. Kind of, but not exactly, like finding your lover is morally reprehensible.)

laura k said...

Impudent Strumpet, thanks for this. I do understand that. I've had that reaction, too -- if the crime (so to speak) is bad enough.

This seems different than (for example) the Hemingway comment above -- a pre-emptive decision. Do you think so, or perhaps not as different as I imagine?

impudent strumpet said...

With the Hemingway example specifically, I think it's less important to read Hemingway specifically because he's so important and influential. His impact is felt, even if you haven't read him. You hear voices like his even if you don't seek them out.

It seems like the next logical step is to read voices who were marginalized by the problematic person. Did Hemingway's wife write anything and I haven't heard of it because she was overshadowed by him? If part of what makes Hemingway gross is period-typical racism, what were the people he was being racist against writing in that era?

(The fact that I can't actually answer these questions is a perfect example of why so much more would be gained from stepping away from Hemingway and instead reading those he overshadows.)

laura k said...

Hm, interesting. I'm asking about a preemptive decision to not engage with certain creations because of perceived shortcomings of the creator. I'm interested to know if other readers fo that.

Specifically Hemingway, if you don't read him, you cannot know his writing. A writer's work and a writer's influence are very different things. No biggie if you don't read Hemingway and prefer to seek out less famous writers of that era. But then you can't know his work.

I only want great writing. Almost nothing else matters to me when it comes to reading. Whether it's great politics or a great plot, I can't do either if the writing is poor or mediocre.

laura k said...

Oh I also wanted to ask about the visceral revulsion. I totally understand that feeling. For you, is there a threshold where you experience that? Like, does it have to be something horrific, or is it more easily triggered?

I'm curious about this question for anyone reading.

With God's Help said...

Indeed, since all humans are fallible we would be left with nothing to read or appreciate if we dismissed all who are sinful.

"Incremental gains" came to mind as I read about Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Yes, they were not perfect - but they did move their causes forward in a positive way. Can we also consider that when Paul writes about slavery in the Bible it is an incremental gain in that the treatment of slaves is actually worth talking about?

John F said...

The line for separating the artist from the art is different for everyone. I am more "forgiving" of creators who are no longer living.

I am a fan of the horror writer HP Lovecraft. He was considered racist even by the standards of his day (he lived from 1890 to 1937). Some of his stories definitely include elements of his racism. He did show himself to be capable of changing his thinking during his lifetime, but his record on racism is still grim. Yet I remain a fan.

If he was alive and writing today, I don't think I could be a fan. Orson Scott Card wrote Ender's Game, a well-regarded science fiction novel that I love. He is very much alive, and has views about LGBT people that made me sell my copies of his work and vow to never give him another penny.

laura k said...

Thank you WGH and John.

I do think the treatment of slaves is worth talking about. I've been lambasted for this kind of thing. Should we donate to food banks when we want to create a society where no one goes hungry? There are many other examples. I think individual lives matter greatly. The hungry family cannot wait for the World Without Hunger to exist. They need to eat. So we need to feed them. Etc.

I can understand the distinction between treatment of Lovecraft and OSC. When my teen book club did Ender's Game, we discussed the author's homophobia. Yet the book itself is about (in part) human rights. Can the book be included on a human rights reading list if the author opposes the human rights of LGBT people? I think it can, because the work is not the author. But I can understand the opposition.

With God's Help said...

Can the book be included on a human rights reading list if the author opposes the human rights of LGBT people?

Great question and thought! I'm not sure I have made up my mind on this one... the work is not the author but doesn't the work reflect the author? And does that reflection tarnish the work? Circulation questions perhaps. "Do as I say, not as I do?"

John F said...

I have recommended Lovecraft to friends, but never without discussing his racism. Ender's Game is still worthy or reading and study. that's what makes Orson Scott Card so frustrating to me. How can he be so empathetic and aware in that book, but so intolerant in his views? People are very complicated, of course, and some are immune to cognitive dissonance.

I was able to separate the artist from the art with Ray Bradbury. I read that he had become a devotee of Fox News in his old age. I felt a bit sorry for him, but simply being a conservative wasn't enough to get me to strike him off the list. I'd have to stop talking several of my coworkers, and I genuinely like a lot of the right-wing ones.

johngoldfine said...

I agree with you completely about separating art and artist. So did DH Lawrence who said to trust the tale, not the teller. Chasing Purity is a losing game for we poor mortal sinners.

That said, I spent years under the lash of the New Criticism and Brooks and Warren and by the end of my English major servitude, I was sullenly demanding some biographical information, dammit--knowing something of the life might just help understand the poem!

You and Jean are reading the Douglass book simultaneously. Her family history connects to your comments on women's suffrage, classism, and so on. Jean's grandmother, Ida, was a small-town Pennsylvania girl, raised in the social gospel of Methodism, one of whose major tenets was alcohol prohibition. She became the state president of the WCTU and, pressing for legal Prohibition, naturally grew interested in gaining vote for women, and so became a suffragette.

Of course, being a believer in temperance (and a small-town Methodist), she was deeply prejudiced against all the big city immigrant Italian and Irish. They worshiped idols, marched with the Pope, and drank!

Poor Jean had to take a temperance pledge at an early age and hear about the Whore of Rome, but Purity being so hard to come by, she now hoists her beer with me over supper every night (When she opts for a 16 oz can over her usual 12er, I give her the side-eye and say, "Think what Ida would say...."). So the temperance pledge didn't take nor did the anti-Catholicism, but she can and does vote, in some small part thanks to the very same imperfect but social-gospel idealist Ida.

impudent strumpet said...

There is a threshold where the visceral revulsion is triggered. When it doesn't meet the threshold, it's like the "disagreeing with someone but still appreciating the art" described above that's indistinguishable to the external observer from regular everyday behaviour.

But I can't tell you where the threshold is, because this hasn't happened frequently enough to pinpoint it. For the visceral revulsion to happen it has to be art that speaks to me on a deep level (which is only a very small subset of art), and then subsequently I find out that the artist is reprehensible (which is a subset of that subset).

If the art doesn't speak to me on a deep level, I've already moved on, so it's indistinguishable from if the artist wasn't reprehensible. (Analogy: imagine some random mediocre sitcom you saw one episode of and then stopped caring. Then you find out the creator is reprehensible. Doesn't change anything, does it?)

Also, I'm just realizing as I write this out, if the art speaks to me on a deep level I'm more likely to start becoming interested in and caring about the creator, which means I'm more likely to find out things about the creator in the first place. I never googled the author of some book I read 10 years ago and then forgot about. I have googled the authors of series that I want to keep reading.

(Also, I don't know if anyone can accurately answer "does it have to be something horrific, or is it more easily triggered?", because if it triggers visceral revulsion in a particular individual, it is horrific to that individual. For example, I haven't read Ender's Game because a quick google suggested that there are giant bugs in it, which is horrific to me. I don't think anyone else in this thread agrees with that assessment.)

impudent strumpet said...

The other thing I was wondering:

I only want great writing. Almost nothing else matters to me when it comes to reading. Whether it's great politics or a great plot, I can't do either if the writing is poor or mediocre.

What do you see as a the difference/nuance between great writing and a great plot? When I try to conceptualize them both I arrive at the same place.

laura k said...

Thanks for fleshing that out. I think the "is it more easily triggered" question comes into play when people won't engage with a work at all because of something they've learned about the creator. But that's not revulsion, it's avoidance... so yeah, you're right.

Sorry about the bugs. I forgot about that, or I would have warned you.

laura k said...

Great writing, for me, is about language -- beauty, originality, a new perspective, the author's ability to express some aspect of the human condition.

Plot is incidental to me, the least important part of a book. I often like to know the plot in advance so I can focus on the writing without suspense making me rush.