I’ve been planning to watch “Blue Jasmine” for some time now, Woody Allen’s critically acclaimed 2013 film starring Cate Blanchett.
Except that now the disturbing charges of pedophilia have resurfaced. The charges that Allen molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow first appeared two decades ago. They were investigated, and charges were not filed. Case closed? Maybe not. Now those charges have lurched back into the public spotlight in most dramatic fashion with the publication of a public letter by Dylan herself describing the atrocious actions of her father.
The distributor of “Blue Jasmine” points out the Allen is owed a presumption of innocence. True enough. But let’s consider for the moment that he is indeed guilty of sexually assaulting his own adopted daughter. Is that grounds to boycott his films? Or is it possible to separate the man from his art?
I am reminded of an essay by philosopher G.A. Cohen in which he asked his teacher, the famous philosopher Gilbert Ryle, whether he studied the philosophy of Martin Heidegger after reviewing Heidegger’s major work Being and Time. The question was rooted in the recognition that Heidegger had been a supporter of the Nazis during World War 2. Ryle’s response was unequivocal:
“No, because when the Nazis came to power, Heidegger showed that he was a shit, from the heels up, and a shit from the heels up can’t do good philosophy.”
Ryle’s reasoning seems to go like this:
(1) One ought not read a philosopher who cannot do good philosophy.
(2) A philosopher who is a shit from the heels up cannot do good philosophy.
(3) Therefore, one ought not read a philosopher who is a shit from the heel’s up.
(4) Heidegger was a shit from the heels up.
(5) Therefore, one ought not read Heidegger.
Cohen, however, was not persuaded by this reasoning. He clearly believes that (2) is false. As he says, “Experience has, alas, induced me to disagree with the stated Rylean generalization.” (“Deeper into Bullshit,” in Bullshit and Philosophy (Carus, 2006), 130). Whether you like Heidegger or not, he is a good (and enormously influential and important) philosopher, Nazi sympathizing or not.
The same is true of Woody Allen. Whether he is a pedophile or not, he is a great filmmaker. So any adaptation of the Rylean argument to marginalize Allen’s work is as doomed to failure as the original attempt to marginalize Heidegger.
However, I am inclined to read Ryle differently. I suspect that he wasn’t really intending to offer a robust philosophical claim. Instead, my guess is that he was simply expressing his conviction that philosophers with deeply offensive moral beliefs and/or conduct ought to be boycotted, irrespective of the quality of their philosophy.
I am sympathetic with this conviction. Last year the lead singer of Welsh rock band Lostprophets, Ian Watkins, was convicted of a series of horrifying sex crimes against children. If I had their albums, they’d go straight in the trash can. (Fortunately I can’t name even one of their songs.)
But is this merely an emotional reaction? Or is there indeed something unseemly about supporting the cultural products of the “corrupt artist”? Should I listen to Michael Jackson’s music? After all, there is persuasive evidence (persuasive to me, anyway) that he sexually assaulted children. If I shouldn’t listen to his music, should I boycott The Jackson Five as well? And what about the oeuvre of anti-Semite Richard Wagner? What about convicted child rapist film director Roman Polanski? Or notorious misogynistic rock star Gene Simmons?
I have little doubt that a moral boycott makes good sense. Who would want to hang a painting by Adolf Hitler on their wall, no matter how beautiful it may be? But then what are the beliefs and practices that are sufficient to warrant a moral boycott of the artist’s work?