Reader Request Week 2014 #6: Enjoying Problematic Things

H. Savinean asks:

I would like to hear your thoughts on liking problematic things, e.g. media with historically accurate but objectionable portrayals of gender/race/etc., media with no historical excuse for the above, media that simply ignore women and people of color, comedians/actors/writers who plant their feet firmly in their mouths way too often… It’s something I spend a fair amount of time on.

Oh, boy! A can of worms! Let me just come over and open it!

Let me skip lightly over what “problematic” means in a larger sense and suggest that for the purposes of this piece, the word means “work/people I have issues with for some substantial and to me relevant social/moral/ethical reason.” With that understood:

I think it’s fine to like or recognize the value of problematic people/things. I think it helps to additionally recognize two things: One, that the person/thing is problematic, regardless of the fact that you like it; two, that the fact you like it doesn’t mitigate the fact that it is problematic. You can hold the two thoughts in your head simultaneously.

So, an example from my own personal problematic files: Chinatown. Fantastic movie, and the guy who directed it drugged and raped an underage girl. The film is a classic and Roman Polanski should have gone to prison. That the film is one of the best films of the 1970s doesn’t change the fact that Polanski is also a rapist. Should you feel uncomfortable about Polanski and his actions? Yes you should. Can you acknowledge Chinatown is still a substantial piece of work? Yes you can.

Another example: Triumph of the Will, by Leni Riefenstahl. For reasons relating to cinematic technique, one of the major films in cinematic history — echoes of the film pop up everywhere from Star Wars to The Lion King. For subject matter, an unapologetic celebration of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg and of Adolf Hitler, it is literally horrifying. Riefenstahl herself: A brilliant filmmaker and forever (and rightly) tainted by her association with a genocidal regime; one of the first great women directors, who unquestionably lent her considerable talents to the furtherance of evil. Can we appreciate the craft she brought to the film? Absolutely. Should we argue that this craft mitigates the purpose for which it was used? Absolutely not. Should Riefenstahl’s embrace of the Nazi party be excused because of her cinematic talent? Not in a thousand years.

And so on. I used two examples from film, but examples can be found in every field of creative endeavor, including — obviously — writing. Likewise, Polanski and Riefenstahl are easy examples because of the unambiguous nature of their actions, but for every clear cut case like theirs, there are a thousand less clear cut — or at least, less clear cut to you. Someone else might disagree, occasionally emphatically.

If you accept that you can both appreciate a problematic work/creator and recognize its problematic issues, there are a host of other issues for you to consider. Some of them:

* Should you support the work with money? Example: Would you pay to own a copy of Chinatown, or merely watch it when it came on television?

* Do you differentiate works from different eras in the creator’s life? For example, if you have a favorite book and over time the creator turned progressively homophobic, can you cherish the work written before that transformation, or do you judge it by the author’s “final form,” as it were?

* How much weight should you give to historical context?

* How much do you care about a creator’s personal life?

* Does it matter whether the creator is living or dead?

(The latter, incidentally, is one I think about a lot. I anecdotally noted a resurgence of Michael Jackson’s music in the common culture after his death, and I hypothesize that his passing removed a lot of the “squick” factor related to his possibly entirely inappropriate relationships with kids. It’s easier to get into a “Thriller” zombie line if you’re not worrying about what Jackson might be doing at one of those Neverland slumber parties, etc.)

Cards on the table: I like a lot of work I think is problematic, and I like more stuff that other people would find more problematic than I do, because they have different standards and life experiences. There’s other stuff I don’t like because I find it too problematic, but I also acknowledge there’s room for hypocrisy in my choices there, too. For example, I find some of Chris Brown’s work catchy but I’m not going to give him my money because he beat a woman and by all the evidence I can see he doesn’t especially regret having done so. On the other hand, in the early 70s Jimmy Page knowingly had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl — that’s statutory rape despite the girl’s then-consent — and I own a whole lotta Zeppelin (on the other hand, I haven’t bought any since I found that bit out. Even so).

Does this dichotomy reflect my judgment regarding their respective actions, some latent baked-in racism, my preference for rock over R&B, or the fact one was just a few years ago and the other over before I even knew about it? You got me. Mix and match. And while you’re doing that, I’m gonna have to think about it some more myself.

Which I think is a thing worth doing as well: When you like a problematic thing, rather than reflexively defending it with the “I like it and therefore it can’t be bad and why are you making me feel bad about it,” response, go ahead and ask yourself why you like it even though you acknowledge it’s got problems. You might find after questioning it, you like it less — or more, because you’ve thought it through.

As a final thought here, I think it’s probably likely that some readers of mine find my work problematic for various reasons — either for what’s in the text of the work, who I am as a person (as far as they know from my public presence and/or their private interaction with me) or some combination of both. It’s part of the territory of being a creative person. Are they wrong for doing so? No; you have to accept that everyone comes to your work with their own perspective and will have their own criticisms of it (and you), some of which you will disagree with, or find to be a feature rather than a bug, as it were.

If the reader can simultaneously hold in their mind that they enjoy the work and find it problematic, I appreciate it. If they decide they can’t and drop me from their cultural diet, then that’s fine, too. We all have to make choices. I’d hope that choice comes after some thought on the matter. Ultimately that’s all you can ask for, as a creator of possibly problematic things.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

82 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2014 #6: Enjoying Problematic Things”

  1. Since this thread has vast potential to go nuclear, let me start off by suggesting that we keep discussion of problematic things relatively general and dip into examples only when making a specific point.

    Likewise, let’s acknowledge that for every example someone might offer, that someone else might say “Well, that’s not really what happened, what happened is THIS –” and then the thread gets dragged off into a discussion of what REALLY happened in a particular case, which won’t be relevant to the general discussion.

    Let’s avoid litigating specific problematic behaviors in this thread. If you disagree with someone else’s encapsulation of an event, you may offer up a link to a different (fact-based) interpretation of the event BUT then return the conversation to a more on-point discussion.

    I’ll be wandering through to nudge people back toward the topic when it’s called for, and to Mallet when necessary.


    Wait, one more thing:

    I suspect inevitably someone will come along to suggest that nothing is actually problematic, this is all just people trying to create controversites where none should exist, etc. If you’re planning to be that person: Just don’t. The discussion here takes for granted that the person enjoying the a work finds problematic elements in it, and therefore the discussion proceeds from that understanding.

    If you want to argue that nothing should be problematic, I encourage you to do so! Somewhere else, where it will be on topic. Thanks.

  2. Overcoming reflexive defense would seem to require overcoming the tendency to convert media consumption into an identity marker and nascent political party.

    On the principle that doing the opposite of whatever mainstream American culture really, really wants you to do is always good, that seems like a superb idea.

  3. One other advantage I have found to giving thought to the problematic aspects of creators/media (instead of hiding them under the mental bed) is that I can be better informed when recommending/sharing media with my friends. Many of these friends have different sensitivities and trigger issues than I do; enthusiastically recommending the storytelling and craft of Orson Scott Card’s “Songbird” to someone I knew had been abused as a child would not be the best thing for me to do, unless I also brought up the relevant trigger warnings so they could make a better informed decision.

    I’ve personally discovered that as I go through the exercise of re-examining the things I like in light of the larger problems, I have gotten better at articulating *why* things bother me (or don’t). In some cases, I have found that works that were problematic ended up being works that I already *didn’t* like as well as I thought I did, and I’d been ignoring some of those signs. This doesn’t happen all the time, but it has happened enough that I’m trying to become more sensitive to it. I am less likely now to plow through works I am finding odious in the hopes of the big payoff at the end.

  4. Good topic, I as well have actors, directors and authors (some who might have blogs) who I think are wrong in their thinking, offend me, trample who I am, pick you poison. In those instances where I might actually like their work I either deny myself the joy of their work or I find other means to consume it that does not result in them receiving a dime. Piracy I guess is an option but there are libraries, friends who have it or half priced book/dvd/etc stores (for when I want to own it).
    I assume these entertainers know the cost of blathering their personal feelings to the world and the benefit that their name could bring to the cause. But I imagine a fair number are not smart enough to consider it either way. Whether it is their shtick, a façade or who they really are it all comes back to not being able to please everyone all the time I reckon.

  5. Could you offer up a bit of opinion on Hollywood’s general acceptance of Polanski’s actions? I remember Ed Harris getting a bit of guff for remaining in his seat while the audience gave Polanski a standing-O for “The Pianist” at the Oscars.

    Do you feel like there is broader problem space where a brilliant artist might get some more slack on reprehensible behavior? Think Bukowski, or Harlan Ellison.

  6. Oh, I like this. I am always in a state of conflict over religion. I find it difficult to enjoy, or I feel bad that enjoy, the work of say Mel Gibson. His fundamentalist religious fervour is hard to put aside and acknowledge that some of his acting, and his directing, are works that I enjoy. Same with Tom Cruise and his Scientology devotion.

  7. Well thought out, as always. It’s an issue I’ve struggled with myself, and I’m pretty sure my line isn’t always drawn in the same place. I don’t tend to idolize my favorite creative people, or expect them to be paragons of virtue, but there’s still that squicky feeling when I discover that someone whose work I admired was not just a product of his or her times, but what I would call a truly awful person in some way. And if the person expressing antediluvian views about women, people of color or LGBT people (or doing even more unsavory things) is a contemporary writer or performer? That makes it harder.

    And it feels awful to be shut down when I express a concern about sexism or racism in a piece, or when I express reservations about a writer or musician’s personal behavior. Seems like a lot of people will shake their finger and say, “You’ve got to focus on the art, not the artist!” I find that hard to do in some cases. I can acknowledge that a book or movie created by such a person is a masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop me from getting an icky feeling when I try to read or watch it.

  8. My favorite example is actually one I find fairly easy to resolve; the reason it’s my favorite example is that as soon as you move away from its particulars everything gets harder to resolve, i.e. it’s a “pure” case and thereby illustrates that the difficulties are with the scungy cases.

    If you like Modernist poetry, have studied it seriously, and take it seriously, there’s no avoiding the point that Ezra Pound was its greatest practitioner in English. Others may have been more catchy, some more accessible, but slice it how you will, Ezra Pound is the top of the esthetic heap. I am far from alone in this opinion.

    Unfortunately, Ezra Pound was a great admirer of Mussolini, defected to Rome in 1935, and made pro-Fascist radio broadcasts to American and Allied troops all through the war. He did everything Lord Haw-Haw did, and more, and they hanged Lord Haw-Haw.

    So in 1949, the first Bollingen Prize committee (the Bollingen was supposed to be given by the Library of Congress, though after that it was moved), gave Pound the prize as part of an effort to get him released from prison and to get the Attorney General to drop treason charges.

    My feeling all along has been that a clearer-minded society would have given him the prize, then tried and hanged him. The poet was worthy of any honor a poet can receive as a poet. The man was a piece of shit.

    Ironically, one of the few dissenting voices on the Bollingen Committee, who bluntly said that he could not separate Pound’s poetry from Pound’s vitriolic antiSemitism, was Karl Shapiro, who I still think of as one of the greatest American poets, but who was expelled from anthologies and literature classes and often relegated to footnote status in the 1960s and 1970s for his outspoken support for the Vietnam War.

  9. I try to separate the artist from the work much of the time (I don’t always succeed, I admit). If a work has problematic elements, I try not to automatically ascribe those elements to attitudes of the author unless there is some additional evidence to back it up. If I know the author holds views that I find problematic, I still try to separate that from my judgment of a work, and I won’t necessarily avoid purchasing work by that author (although in some cases, such as where an author is highly political active and actively works to set public policy in what I view as problematic ways, I’ll avoid the author’s work even if the works in question don’t have problematic aspects.

    When it comes to older works (classics, and so on), I think it is also important, and ultimately fair to the author, to consider the context of the time period when making judgments. If I read a book published in 1910 with certain problematic elements, I’ll be much more likely to overlook them than if I read something published in 2014 that has those same problematic elements.

    Finally, I think it is important in speculative fiction to consider the setting of the story, though this can’t be used as carte blanche to excuse problematic elements. Authors can and should be able to write stories set in societies where racism, sexism, or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, religion, and so on, are the norm. This again goes to separating the author from the work and not assuming the work is representative of the author’s views. At the same time, “oh, that’s just how my setting is” can’t be an excuse to continue under-representation or poor representation of minorities, women, LGBT persons, and so on. Finding where that line falls is hard, in my view. I think the important thing is that the genre be diverse in all of these areas. It is when the genre is virtually monolithic in its portrayal of these issues that you run into real problems.

  10. Mark Oshiro once commented that if we got rid of *everything* that was problematic in any way, including anything racist/misogynist/homophobic or otherwise marginalizing to any class of people as well as anything produced by anyone with questionable morals, there won’t be very much left. Twisty Faster over at I Blame the Patriarchy wrote a bit on this too, but she commented from the other side; women, as one of the classes of people who find themselves on the business end of marginalization, have to swallow their gag reflex in order to partake in cultural entertainment. I think everybody’s got to decide what they’re willing to support and for what reason.

    Question: what about buying used copies of problematic works? Roman Polanski won’t get any money from your buying a used copy of Chinatown.

  11. Personally, I tend to let the work overcome much of my objection (for example, I’ve continued to follow Card’s _Ender_ stories as they come out).

    But this reminds me of a somewhat related thing that I’ve seen happen in a small pond, as it where: Contemporary Christian Music.

    Many years back, there was a fairly young artist who was at the top of that part of the industry – winning multiple Dove awards (CCM/Gospel equivalent of the ACM awards) and selling quite well. During a large multi-artist tour, he started sleeping with another artist. Both were unmarried, as I recall, but in that community this was unacceptable.

    When this came out, not only did his future career as a CCM artist go away, but stores pulled his past albums, radio stations quit playing his music, etc. It was like this one event made him not exist past or present. Personally, I thought that was an overreaction.

  12. You know, I’ve frequently tried to express much the same views as you’ve done in your answer here — to friends and acquaintances and such. I keep hearing folks say that the works themselves cannot possibly have any merit, specifically because the creator of said work is “problematic.”

    Just in the last few weeks, a day or two after the Academy Awards, I listened to someone ranting about how “Blue Jasmine shouldn’t have won any Oscars because Woody Allen did Bad Things, and why would anyone even consider watching any of his films ever again?!”

    I do appreciate your suggestion to question what it is that appeals about any particular work; self-questioning is (in my opinion) always a worthwhile endeavor, and personally it’s been the avenue by which I have found my greatest moments of growth.

    Oh, and the first thing that came to mind as I read this post was your earlier article about boycotts… — you wrote:

    There are a (very) few creators I choose not to support for personal reasons that are unrelated to the quality of their output. […] I do it because my own personal sense of morality tells me not to have anything to do with them.

    It sounds like you’ve questioned things you found problematic, and made your decisions based on the outcome of that questioning, and it’s a rather sensible approach!

  13. Sarah, I think as soon as the artist is entangled with the person/citizen, the question of who gets the money becomes much less relevant. Additional cash from Chinatown will not enable Polanski to rape more 13 year olds, nor, unfortunately, is he at any risk of poverty (which I suppose in its most extreme forms would stop him or slow him down). It’s the reputation and prestige of his work that is his monument, and to tangle it up more, we honor a work at least in part for what it says about us: we like having Chinatown in our canon of great films, we like the idea of greatness that is exemplified in Chinatown. (Just as the Medal of Honor goes to the brave person who earned it in part to commemorate the fact that as a society we produce and honor people like that). So buying a used copy of Chinatown and referencing it in a review, or even simply allowing it to be one of your internal examples of what you’re thinking about? All that preserves Chinatown, which to some extent preserves Polanski, which means he still gets a voice despite what he did. The money, in this case, is trivial by comparison.

    OTOH, where you know that some substantial part of a writer’s earnings and/or fame go to supporting a cause of which you disapprove — like Pound’s fascism, or Card’s homophobia, or for that matter certain flavors of priggish/sanctimonious vegetarianism if that’s what gripes you — then the money may be much more important than the work or its reputation. (On the prehensile tail, if the work is trivial compared to the money, why are you bothering to consume the work?)

    Our Esteemed Host is right. This is one great can of worms, in both senses of that phrase.

  14. What about peers? Do you think that people within the same industry as a problematic artist have a responsibility when it comes to working with and supporting that person? E.g. should actors or producers refuse to work with Polanski?

    Are there, or could there be, people you would refuse to work with because they (not their work) are sufficiently problematic? People you would refuse to appear at the same event with?

  15. Living vs dead is a huge one for me. Even though my individual purchase of a problematic work isn’t going to materially change the circumstances of most artists, I still would prefer not to lend my money to someone who supports a cause I find problematic. IF they’re dead then they can’t do this.

    I think it’s also relevant (to me at least) to consider whether someone made early mistakes and then became a better person (for my values of better). For example, if someone made sexist remarks in their early career but hasn’t in 20 years and seems, by their current actions and words, to have left that attitude behind them, I’m likely to write off their early remarks as uneducated, uninformed or the like and not let it affect my opinion on their current work. I bring this up because it’s the mirror image of the example John used where someone starts off as a reasonable sort and becomes problematic as time passes.

  16. Since the comments so far have focused on the paradox as it applies to various media, may I provide an example from a completely different field?

    The science behind the medical treatment of hypothermia has largely come from Nazi concentration camps. It was poorly done, in terms of controls and methodology, but it was all the science out there. The state of the art in managing human hypothermia has only started to change in the last couple decades. Google “nazi hypothermia treatment” for the various controversies.

  17. The science behind the medical treatment of hypothermia has largely come from Nazi concentration camps. It was poorly done, in terms of controls and methodology, but it was all the science out there. The state of the art in managing human hypothermia has only started to change in the last couple decades. Google “nazi hypothermia treatment” for the various controversies.

    Oooo, I do believe I recall seeing something waaaaay back in the 90s about how much of the scientific knowledge we have regarding human physiology (e.g. illustrations in medical textbooks) came from the Nazi experimentation when the camps were operating. Also, many of the Nazi scientists came to the United States during and after the war and continued their pursuit of scientific knowledge (although, one would hope, without the use of torture on live human subjects). Are we bad people for profiting from this (profit, in this sense, being saving lives and improving quality of life)?

  18. I think of this sometimes in relation to “sanitized” animated cartoons. Racist Bugs Bunny cartoons that have been eliminated from circulation, Tom and Jerry with the “mammy” voice redubbed with something less overtly offensive, and so forth. I can see and appreciate why the content owners would think “you know, this isn’t really child appropriate after all” and edit their body of work–maybe an adult can take a detached view of these things as a product of their times, but not kids. But should Bugs be skipped entirely for the sake of the bad episodes? Is it OK to like “What’s Opera Doc?” when there’s a “Southern Fried Rabbit”? Can you watch “Frozen” when the same company made “Song of the South”? Do the studios get credit for trying?

    For me, I think yes, but I have often wondered when folks take a stand on [fill in the blank; Ender’s Game, for example], if they are also boycotting Bugs Bunny. If not, is that hypocritical, or simply aligned with a worldview akin to what Scalzi outlines here?

  19. Dafydd (at 4:37), I’d call that an “unintended beneficial consequence” (or side effect) on the same level as the Christian concept of the Fortunate Fall. The nazi human hypothermia experiments were evil–no question. But evil happens,or–in this case more accurate, perhaps–human beings do commit evil acts; when they do, to ignore anything useful that might occur as a side-effect or consequence of that evil is at best waste. This in no way excuses or forgives or even mitigates the original evil. It deserves to be acknowledge, and if we advance science while refusing to acknowledge it, we damage ourselves.

    Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking about a very similar issue to the OP lately, with regard to a work I love, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which is (as I’ve had to come to accept over the years) racist. I never had any problem noticing or dismissing the sexism in that work as unimportant, mostly for historical reasons, but I honestly didn’t notice the racism when I first read the story–possibly because it isn’t the American version of racisim (and possibly because I was about sixteen at the time, but maybe not). I’ve been examining the idea that I could find something of value–something still worth reading–in a work that contains racist imagery and implications. It’s disturbing, but so it goes: the book still has something to say to me, and I’m not willing to give that up. Nor am I going to allow myself to believe that “it can’t be racist because I wouldn’t like it if it were racist!” In fact, realizing that that’s lying to myself may be part of the value, ultimately.

  20. I really struggled with this when the Ender’s Game movie, far more than I thought I would. I didn’t read the novel until I was in my mid-20s. I found it mildly entertaining but not especially remarkable, beyond the twist. In the ten years since I learned of Card’s personal politics and advocacy, which conflict greatly with my own. Not being overly impressed with the book and not thinking much of Card, I found it pretty easy to dismiss the movie.

    Until I started to see the previews.

    I don’t know why, but the previews grabbed my attention. I wanted to see the movie but didn’t want to feel like I was in any way expressing approval for Card. Moreover, with the importance given to box office receipts, I didn’t want my money encouraging Hollywood to give Card large amounts of money for rights to other works or involvement in future movies. I didn’t want to be a butterfly helping change his weather, in other words.

    I finally rented it on Blu Ray from Redbox last weekend, watched it the same night, and returned it the next day. My wife and I both watched it for about $1.64, which was way less than we would have paid to see it in the theater or on pay per view.

    Of course I really liked the damn thing. Maybe I could buy a used copy of it and Chinatown in the same place someday…

    I’m really glad to see some nuanced opinions on this. It feels like the only things you ever hear anyone say are either “Pardon Woody Allen! He’s a genius!” or “We should burn every copy of every Woody Allen movie!” My personal feeling is that you can’t fully separate the art from the artist, but I’m evolving somewhat on how inextricable the link between the two is.

  21. A lot of a specific (dead) author’s non-fiction speaks to me less now that I know he sexually harassed women (something I found out about on this blog). I used to identify with his non-fiction voice and his personality… but now I know he wasn’t speaking to me. He’s not who I thought he was, and that’s important for personal essays.

    His fiction is still the same, and his more science-y non-fiction, but I just can’t read his personal essays anymore because they mean something different than I thought they did.

    If I found out that John Scalzi un-apologetically groped non-consenting women at cons [disclaimer: I’m sure he doesn’t!], I’d probably still be able to read his fiction, but anything resulting from Whatever would be dead to me. Same thing.

  22. We owe a lot of the space program to Operation Paperclip which spirited the German rocket scientists out of Germany and into Texas. Do we abandoned what NASA has done because certain parties’s allegiance was ruled by expedience?

  23. I tend to differentiate depending on class of public personality and the offense in question.

    An odious actor in general isn’t presenting their artistic vision, with all it’s subtext and intent, on the screen, nor is a member of a band (unless they are also the lyricist), I don’t damn the whole project for the involvement of one (or more) objectionable people. A writer (book, blog, play, et al), lyricist or director is different in that they are presenting their cohesive work which to some degree or another communicates their world view, and if I find that world view problematic then I’m probably not going to want to support them as an artist.

    Even noting that, I can find an auteur to be a brilliant creator of works of art while being an awful person and I can appreciate their creations while damning them and if applicable their actions outside of their creative endeavors.

    I do appreciate when people with awful personalities and politics quite thoughtfully also create works of art that I find terrible as well, saving me the cognitive dissonance.

  24. We owe a lot of the space program to Operation Paperclip which spirited the German rocket scientists out of Germany and into Texas. Do we abandoned what NASA has done because certain parties’s allegiance was ruled by expedience?

    I’d say no, of course not. But I’d also point out that you’re asking a very different question than how we should respond to artists whose “problematic” actions are uncompelled by any outside forces.

  25. Avdi:

    I think it’s really up to the conscience of the individual person, and things do get complicated with personal relationships. There’s not an easy cut and dried answer.

    There could certainly be people who I wouldn’t share a stage with, although to date, within science fiction, it hasn’t come up.

  26. Jack Lint said: “Do we abandoned what NASA has done because certain parties’s allegiance was ruled by expedience?”

    I don’t think this blog piece was talking about whether or not we should abandon scientific discoveries, though that certainly raises another interesting question.

    As per the issue as it relates to art, all I can say is the fate of the free world probably doesn’t rest on whether or not I can bring myself to read something by OSC, or re-watch Chinatown. If it gives me a sick squicky feeling to do so, or if I am bothered by the way certain people are portrayed (or ignored) in a novel or movie other people enjoy, that’s how I feel. I certainly have a right to spend my limited time and money on art and entertainment I find more enjoyable, and to express my opinion about the things I don’t enjoy.

  27. I think historical cultural context is a big deal for a lot of things. So much depends on what the conventional wisdom and custom of a given time/culture was. Hindsight using 21st-century Western cultural standards, not to mention availability of education and information, isn’t always useful. Undoubtedly, there are things we consider “normal” right now that are actually harmful to people, but the awareness of that harm just isn’t there. For example, the fact that we so casually toss around ableist language related to mental health. How many times in the last week have you said something/someone was “crazy” or “insane”? (This is something I’m trying very hard to unlearn right now myself, and I even have mental health issues that should theoretically make me more sensitive to it!) For this reason, I’m not horribly upset by the problematic aspects of say, Baum or Tolkien. They ARE problematic, definitely, but in a totally different way than if the same race fails were to appear in works written today.

    Even your Jimmy Page example is a context issue, TBH. It wasn’t until the early ’80s that the notion that young teens are incapable of consenting to sex was even talked about. Until then, the prohibition on underage sex was based in general anti-sex and anti-fornication moral standards. The notion that sex with an adult might be harming a teen in any way other than sullying her virtue and future marriageability was basically unheard of.

    Now, on the other hand, bad acts by people who should know better? Totally different story. Paula Dean, Mel Gibson, Orson Scott Card, etc.–none of them have the slightest excuse for what they’ve said and done, and I will never give them my money.

  28. One further point is that your admiration for someone’s work may give you reasons to rethink your reasons for finding the person problematic. If, for example, someone you view as a brilliant film director or philosopher was also an enthusiastic Nazi, that doesn’t tell you that the Nazis were right but it is evidence against the idea that Nazi ideology was something that could only appeal to the stupid or ignorant. If a perceptive novelist took for granted and apparently approved of a society where men and women played different roles, that might be a reason to rethink one’s assumption that gender roles are always and everywhere a bad thing. If an author who was obviously intelligent and perceptive was also a serious Christian—I’m thinking of Chesterton and C.S. Lewis—that’s a reason to modify my initial feeling, as an atheist, that Christianity is something it would be hard for a reasonable person to believe in.

  29. I would also recommend reading about Double Consciousness as written about by W. E. B. Du Bois. There are a lot of us who have been dealing with liking things that go from problematic to entirely awful and harmful since we learned to read/watch TV/take in information.

  30. I think there is a substantial cognitive divide between works where you can see the problematic individual and those where you can’t. (I’m talking about pieces where the problematic element is the creator but is not necessarily directly reflected in the work.)

    For example I think it is easier to appreciate Wagner because we can’t _see_ Wagner and whatever we are listening to is an interpretation of his work. (Not having recordings of his original works as performed by him) But much harder to appreciate (at least for me) movies where I can _see_ the problematic individual and where the work is not an interpretation, for example take a modern movie with any particularly outspoken Scientologist actor.

    Another aspect for me is “Will this money support a cause I find reprehensible?” I have trouble giving money to authors & actors who I know directly, financially support things I find horrid. For example people who I know gave, and will continue to give money to support organizations that directly opposed Prop 8 would be very hard for me. But giving money to people who have views I don’t like, but I have no knowledge that they use their money in substantial, political ways to support things I oppose, is easier.

  31. I think the first cut is whether the art forwards the problematic part of the artist or not. Sometimes it does. If it does, then no thanks. One example that does is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. On the other side of the cut, I don’t think Chinatown endorses the rape of underage girls. In fact, the guy who was the molester in that film seemed to be fairly clearly portrayed as the bad guy, so, I don’t have much of a problem liking Chinatown.

    On the flip side, there are movies that I think are heinous but the creators aren’t on the run from the law and what not, and may even be nice people. I think “300” is a horrendous portrayal of history, engages in homophobia, racism, and infatuations with power, but as far as I know, Zack Snyder is a good guy with no criminal record. I don’t like 300, but I don’t then also dislike Snyder.

    Forget it, Jake. It’s chinatown.

  32. For my part, I take the same approach to patronizing arts and entertainments I find problematic that I take to every ethical decision I make. I do my best to weigh and evaluate the most salient interlocking cost-benefit analyses, with the full knowledge that my model will almost certainly be incomplete and therefore possibly erroneous, then I choose in accordance with my personal values. Once I’ve chosen, I’m open to changing my mind at a future time, but I will not waste time second-guessing my decision or agonizing over whatever costs I chose to incur for whatever benefits. The correct approach, in my not-so-humble opinion, to incorrect choices is to do better next time, not wallow in indecision.

    It’s been my admittedly anecdotal observation that some not insignificant fraction of folks seem to think wallowing is due penance for problematic choices. It’s okay because I feel bad about it, they seem to say. Feeling bad about doing something wrong never helped anyone, neither one’s self nor anyone one may have done harm to. I suspect in many, if not most, such cases what that really comes down to is a punitive corrective morality in lieu of a rehabilitative approach – the idea that immorality is somehow balanced by punishment, and so can be paid for by self-flagellation. I blame religion. It might get you right with your god(s) or goddess(es), but it does jack all for your victims.

    Another dimension to this question which I expect is often implied by the asker is: How do you deal with other people who enjoy things you find problematic, and who may or may not themselves have a problem with them? And how do they deal with you in the reverse situation? We are, after all, descended from mildly social pack animals and that comes with an instinct to seek some degree of moral consensus. Yet we have evolved a highly individualistic cognizance. That we never do nor will obtain the perfect consensus of an insect hive is as much a source of existential angst to many of us as the wolf uncertain of its compatibility with its pack. Most of us want to uncompromisingly stand our moral ground, but few of us want to stand alone when we realize perfect concord is virtually impossible even with the most like-minded friends. Where to draw the line with others is as pressing as where we draw the line on our own enjoyment of problematic things.

    Should Riefenstahl’s embrace of the Nazi party be excused because of her cinematic talent? Not in a thousand years.

    A fascinating choice of words. We have records of atrocities as grave in deed if not degree by civilizations millennia old. Rarely to they evoke the same visceral revulsion that the Holocaust does. For that matter, there’ve been examples that fit the bill more recently than the Holocaust, but a lack of exposure has translated in the Western culture into a dearth of concern. We are rightly indoctrinated from childhood to abhor what the Nazis did. But for all that we Godwin whatever irks us, few people seem to generalize from that moral lesson to its historical echoes. This worries me not only because of the lack of concern over particular atrocities we are not indoctrinated against, but because it may demonstrate a failure or moral reasoning, of taking that ethical lesson indoctrinated in childhood and thinking for ourselves in applying it generally. Are we, as a society, tending to become more rote and less critical in our evaluation of problematic things? Or has it always been so that so many simply regurgitate the lessons of childhood? Or am I being too cynical in my estimation of how critical most people actually are?

  33. Regarding buying used copies to avoid money going to the art creator – every used copy bought is one less used copy available to others who want the work. At least some of them will buy a new copy upon finding a used copy is unavailable. So even buying a used copy is indirectly contributing to the welfare of the creator. You might judge it an appropriate moral compromise, though, since in all likelihood less money will end up going to the creator.

    Sometimes an author’s actions outside their work bugs me enough I find myself unable to enjoy it. I started to re-read Ender’s Game, and found myself too distracted by my own thoughts about Card’s politics. I don’t find myself reacting the same way to Woody Allen films, though I am at least convinced he has some serious moral issues. My guess is the difference is my life experience – I’m a trans-female, so homophobia bothers me very directly, but I never experienced inappropriate sexual attention as a child.

    I won’t spend money directly on something that will very directly result in financial benefit to someone I have moral doubts (or worse) about. I wouldn’t buy a Woody Allen or Polanksy film. I do find myself supporting them indirectly – I watch them on Netflix, which increases the chance Netflix will renew the contracts they have with them.

    As far as content goes, I’m *seriously* bothered by attempts to whitewash the past. Taking the pickaninny servants/slaves out of Fantasia is Disney whistling with fake innocence while they turn their heads away. I’d be quite happy with disclaimer at the beginning “The following film contains racist imagery. While we are not proud of this fact, we must acknowledge that our company once had some racist tendencies. Although those tendencies reflect the times, they no longer represent the views of our company, and we apologize for them. We have chosen to not cut or censor this film, because we do not wish to hide the evils of history. We suggest that your children either not watch this film, or that you use these scenes as an opportunity to discuss the serious issue of racism with them.”

  34. I think for me, it is okay to decide you don’t want to consume media because of a problematic bit of content of history; it is the other half of free will. I’m not so interested in the ideology of why people are abstaining. I am very approving of people discussing this in the open which points out the fact that content can be problematic. For example, I am a little disappointed in Scarlet Johansson and her Woody Allen comments… either say that Dylan is a liar, or that Dylan isn’t a liar, or Scarlett has no useful info to add but never never hint that Dylan should remain silent for politeness sake.

  35. I’m amazing no one’s quoted Bujold’s charaacter Cordelia yet. Cordelia’s point was that everyone is flawed so therefore it follows that all great acts, and all great persons, come from flawed beginnings.

    My take is this is true, but I get to pick which flaws I deal with and which ones I walk away from.The flaws (homophobia, racism, …) of someone who lived a long time ago I generally find easy to deal with, because people’s expectations and mindsets were so different then. People alive now? Well, that’s different. But I haven’t yet determined what my triggerpoints are.

    Nazi science: We got into a vociferous fight in an ethics class on this one. Specifically, what to do with the results of the so-called science. It didn’t end till one student pointed out that neither side was holding the it good; but that one side was arguing that the victims’ suffering should not be wasted by disregarding the results, the other that the bare fact of using the results made it seem that the Nazis’ torture was justified.

    Movies: A classmate and I had an almost-permanent falling out over The Birth of a Nation. He felt my admiration for the cinegraphic techniques (generally considered even more groundbreaking than Riefenstahl’s) meant I condoned the appalling racism of the text.

  36. The problem with ‘Problematic’ outside of our personal influence remains the ineffectiveness of boycott or refusing to recommend a particular piece of Product to others. I get into an interior personal conflict when a ‘Problematic’ statement or product is attached to a human being right there in front of me with the potential to respond to my reaction in a real and possibly physical manner. Do I express myself or not? What is my ethical duty? If I say something, is it proselytizing or objecting? If I fail to say anything, am I chicken? So far, I have been excruciatingly inconsistent and this mostly depends on the size of whoever was ‘Problematic’. If you can’t get past yourself there’s no point in pointing at others from a safe vantage.

  37. I had the opportunity to come into contact with some people whose work I liked a lot when I was younger. In most of those cases I ended up hating the person and it spoiled their work for me. Not all artists (broad term) disappointed me but enough did that I make a real point of not wanting to know anything about people whose work I like. John is an exception as I got to know him via the blog & “Your Hate Mai Will Be Graded” before I read his fiction (fully acknowledging that that is not knowing the real John).

    I used to like the work of Mel Gibson & Woody Allen but I am now uncomfortable with them. I try to ignore what I have heard about them but I would be so much happier not knowing anything about a whole list of people. I don’t know how to get past that.

  38. This discussion prompted a personal thought. I am working on a project that may at some point be widely distributed. As an individual, I hold some beliefs, and practice a lifestyle, that some may find problematic. I’m closeted in my professional life and I expect to remain closeted with respect to this project, particularly for the protection of the privacy of those close to me. However, I expect this aspect of my life might come out at some point. At which time some of the people who are familiar with my work, and who might in fact find profound meaning in it, might consequently find the work problematic.

    That would be too bad, and would interfere with the larger mission of the work. So I expect I will do my best to remain closeted and to let the work speak for itself.

  39. When ever I thought about boycotting some form of entertainment because of problems I have with the creator I realized I was taking a much harder line with artists I didn’t like anyway and if I like the work then I usually made some excuse so I just gave up.

    I think the NRA is totally over the line as far as reasonableness goes and Charlton Heston said some ridiculous things while he was president of that organization. Does that mean I’m going to give up watching Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, Omega Man, etc because he’s in them? Not a chance. Not even a consideration.

    I guess what it comes down to is if I really like the work I’m in. Sometimes it’s begrudgingly going but I’m in. If it’s borderline then I don’t flat out boycott but a lot of times I end up on the side of not going because there is usually more that enough entertainment out there that’s not created by jerks that I have options.

    An example is Orson Scott Card. It’s not just that I disagree with him, it’s that he joins boards of organizations to deny rights to classes of people he doesn’t like. And rights abhorrent editorials. And on and on. Not sure what I would have done if the Ender’s Game movie turned out to be one of the greatest Sci-Fi movies of the last few years but fortunately that wasn’t the case so I didn’t have much of a decision when I didn’t go. There were plenty of other movies out there that weekend.

  40. Anne said:

    “The problem with ‘Problematic’ outside of our personal influence remains the ineffectiveness of boycott or refusing to recommend a particular piece of Product to others.”

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I don’t see this discussion as being about boycotts. My interpretation of Scalzi’s post isn’t that he’s trying to influence others (for example) to abstain from buying copies of Chinatown to change a behavior on the part of its creators/rights holders, but rather pondering a more personal level of entwinement between the art, the artist, and the consumers of the art.

    I can’t speak for others, but the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of my personal endorsement/purchase of any given work for moral and ethical reasons is not even a consideration. Do I have some influence on others? Possibly, but admittedly it’s a darn small circle. Yet even if I had a soapbox and reach like Scalzi’s (or even moreso), I don’t think that would be a consideration for me other than to be even more careful of which things I spoke negatively about outside of my immediate trusted circle of friends. To me, the issue is simply one of entanglement and accountability.

    I can’t control perception, but I can be aware of how it is likely to play out. For example, I am involved in martial arts, and very often get to help teach other students. I personally have had a very difficult time teaching students whose behavior makes it clear the only reason they’re there is to learn how to hurt others. By teaching them even in some small way, I feel like I would be to some degree spiritually (for lack of a better word) accountable for any misdeeds they execute with the skills I helped teach them. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable opening up a dojo that taught classes to anyone with the money — but that doesn’t mean I condemn those people who do, nor am I trying to stop those people from engaging in that business model.

    That point is going to be different for everyone, but having this discussion sure helps us consider points of view we might not have come up with inside of our own skulls. :)

  41. Something about the idea of specifically buying an used copy of the work to avoid giving money to the creator bugs me, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. Perhaps if you are able to separate your feelings about the creator from the work well enough to be able to enjoy the work, then the work deserves to have its creator paid. It’s not particularly rational.

    I once bought a CD and found that the liner notes exhorted me to be against hunting, and some other things that I’m not against. I imagine that quite a few film and music personalities agree with the list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they donated to causes related to the list. Somehow I manage not to care.when buying their work. This particular band put it in the liner notes and then informed me that a portion of my money had gone to the causes in question. That irritated me, even though it’s their money and they can spend it as they choose.

  42. If no one else is going to, I’m going to throw some kudos at Jack Lint for the Tom Lehrer reference.

  43. Overcoming reflexive defense would seem to require overcoming the tendency to convert media consumption into an identity marker and nascent political party.


    As a general comment, I’m a rape survivor – so yeah, if you really must frame it like that I guess it’s an “identity marker” for me that I don’t have any time for rape “jokes” or pop culture that casually dishes up sexual violence as titillating entertainment. And it’s actually really useful to keep in mind that, intentionally or not, “you’re just being POLITICAL” is a really common silencing tactic used to passive-aggresively tell women and minorities to STFU.

    @Devin L. Ganger:

    I can’t speak for others, but the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of my personal endorsement/purchase of any given work for moral and ethical reasons is not even a consideration. Do I have some influence on others? Possibly, but admittedly it’s a darn small circle.

    But my response to that is, of course, none of us can change the world single-handed but you’ve got to start somewhere. If you’re getting one person thinking about casual sexism in their pop culture diet, then they’ve got their own circles of influence.


    When ever I thought about boycotting some form of entertainment because of problems I have with the creator I realized I was taking a much harder line with artists I didn’t like anyway and if I like the work then I usually made some excuse so I just gave up.

    Funny, I’m the exact opposite — I’m tough on Game of Thrones‘s *cough* enormously problematic treatment of women and sexual violence because I actually expect better from very smart people like GRR Martin and the producers of the TV version. On the other hand, a shitty rape culture enforcer like Mark Millar can’t disappoint me when “d-bag” is his default setting.

  44. Since much of my favorite art has been banned at some point or another, this whole subject makes me nervous, and I think my squeamishness starts around the point where contagion theories set in. Disliking an artist, not wanting to enable them and line their pockets, being unable to endure their art without constantly focusing on their moral failings – I can understand all that.

    It’s the point where the people start believing the art itself emits magical heresy cooties which can get into the brains of children and weak minded individuals and turn them evil so we must root out and denounce everyone who has been exposed to the contagion, and destroy it with fire. It’s like our little monkey brains get confused by the irritating art and instinctively head into flea-fighting strategy.

  45. Cards on the table: I like a lot of work I think is problematic

    I chuckled at this line, because 1) it’s a nice (and perhaps unintended) pun and 2) I feel the same way.

  46. Everyone is flawed. The fact that an artist has done/said “problematic” things is an interesting historical footnote that does not interfere with me judging a work on its own merits. (Example: Mao Tse-tung’s writings on war and guerilla warfare were (a) turgid and boring, and (b) cribbed from Von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. Not worth reading. Oh yeah, the author was a mass murderer who made Hitler look like a amateur.)

    Historical information about a creator can help one see where elements in said creator’s work come from. Works by significant, if problematic, people can contain insights into how such a person thinks.

    In my opinion, ‘problematic’ works are subjective–what one person dislikes or finds offensive may not bother another person. I don’t have a problem with historical or classical works that depict the attitudes of the time they were written–I expect them to do so. It doesn’t bother me if their writing reflects the common beliefs of the time, so long as those beliefs don’t completely distort their ability to write factually or realistically.

    I do have a problem with more modern (19th C. and later) authors who stereotype and dehumanize people they were prejudiced against–it ends up being bad writing, as well as insulting. For example, Sax Rohmer’s depiction of Asians is really, really offensive and stereotypical and just bad writing, relying on bad stereotypes instead of actual characterization. By way of contrast, Earl Derr Biggers wrote a wonderfully nuanced character in Charlie Chan, the Chinese-American detective from Hawaii, and depicted the prejudices of the time (contemporary to the author) that the character had to suffer under.

    Finally, remember that movies are a group effort, and the copyright is not held by the director (usually). Netflix doesn’t have a contract with Roman Polanski to run “Chinatown”, they have a contract with whichever media conglomerate owns the rights. You watching it on Netflix isn’t going to help or hurt Polanski; he got his cut a long time ago.

  47. “magical Heresy cooties” is the name of my next glam punk band.

    Seriously though, I have some of the same issues with this as Charon Dunn. It is difficult to find a balance between unconditional acceptance and frothing soap boxing. I don’t do either and as others have stated the trigger points vary.

    When I was much younger and growing up in a rather conservative part of the country there was much homophobia to the point of being told that you couldn’t like a certain artist beacause they were gay. (Liberace in this example) I went on to college and discovered the Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, and others and found that my world view about this dividing line had changed. I don’t live there anymore and I’m considered “the most Liberal” member of the family as I live in Seattle now.
    My question then, and I think it’s appropriate, is should I also be judged by my earlier issues or by the person I am now. YMMV, but that’s why I’m hesitant to blackball on earlier behaviour but understand that if the behaviour has not changed I would have to reevaluate.

  48. I want to add that I’m not indicting religion as a whole, but merely observing that the notion of self-flagellation as penance seems to have arisen from a belief in primary accountability to a divinity. That in itself is not necessarily harmful, but combined with the human talent for making excuses it can, and i think has, become a substitute for doing right by other people. Moreover, it’s my hypothesis that this excuse has seeped into the general consciousness to the point where even not very religion individuals frequently think feeling guilty somehow partially or entirely absolves them not only of past transgressions, but of ones they are knowingly committing or plan to go on committing in the future, that merely feeling bad makes them a fundamentally not bad person. If and when that becomes an excuse for doing bad things, the practical effect is clearly to facilitate harmful behavior.

  49. I have my own set of criteria that involves a variety of factors. I accept that others often have very different criteria. I accept that others may think my criteria stinks and express that judgment. I in turn fully have the right to think their judgment stinks and/or to express my judgment factors further. Any individual or group of individuals has the right to not buy a piece of art, to also publicly say that they are boycotting it, to encourage others to join them in boycotting it and to sit in judgment of those who don’t want to boycott. In turn, any individual or group of individuals has the right to decide not to boycott a work of art and to sit in judgment of those who do. It may make you feel bad that others sit in judgment of your decisions about art, but sit in judgment they do, because art is subjective judgment. You cannot stop them, nor can they stop you. We do not own each other’s brains.

  50. This topic is something I’ve struggled with a bit. Although in my case “problematic” is of a personal nature, rather than really a political one. I used to frequent the website of a John C Wright. When I first discovered him, I myself was a churchgoer and rather conservative, so his diatribes and personal views didn’t really bother me. My views have since shifted to the opposite end of both the religious and political spectrum. However, i still enjoyed his works, so I didn’t feel that this would be a problem. Unfortunately, I discovered that he can be rather… unkind to people who comment on his site who disagree with him. (I’m putting it very mildly here)

    This has, over time and many repeated occasions, left me with an extreme distaste of the man himself, something rather unique. (I have never so disliked someone that I have never met in person) So, his works are “problematic” in that sense.

    I’m sure there are plenty of other sci-fi authors that hold similar, or perhaps even more extreme, views than him, but that doesn’t really bother me. I don’t know them, have never met any of them. (well,I met Orson Scott Card once, at a book signing. He seemed very pleasant in person)

    It’s a shame, as I’ve heard good things about the Count To A Trillion books, but I find that I cannot divorce my opinion of his writing from my opinions of the author in this case.

  51. I was given “Battlefield Earth” when I was 21 or 22 years old and I liked it a lot.
    It’s fast-paced and I was fascinated by Jonnie’s cleverness.
    I didn’t know anything about the author though, so I could enjoy it wholeheartedly and without bias.
    I would have liked to read more of the same author, but when I searched for him online and found he’s the man behind Scientology I immediately decided not to support his movement in any way.
    I still like the novel and every couple of years I will find myself reading it again and enjoying it still.
    I think I would have problems enjoying any other thing from L. Ron Hubbard taken into consideration his background, which I find problematic, but the fact that I got to know this specific novel when I was still unbiased und unaware of any hidden agenda in the story, makes it easy for me to relive the experience unaffected.
    So I think if you get to know and love something without knowing anything about its problematic background or that of its creator, it will be hard to ignore your love for it regardless of any new knowledge you may gain afterwards.

  52. “Another example: Triumph of the Will, by Leni Riefenstahl. For reasons relating to cinematic technique, one of the major films in cinematic history — echoes of the film pop up everywhere from Star Wars to The Lion King. For subject matter, an unapologetic celebration of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg and of Adolf Hitler, it is literally horrifying.”

    The correct treatment of films like this is obvious: during the Second World War, the British secret service invented the comedy YouTube remix, hampered barely at all by the fact that YouTube would not be invented for another sixty years, and the Rickroll, anticipating the birth of Rick Astley by more than a decade.
    They recut Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” to the tune of the popular music-hall song “The Lambeth Walk” (which the Nazis disapproved of because they thought it was Jewish) and airdropped the film from black-painted Lysander aircraft to remote drop zones held by heroic Resistance fighters, who would then burst into cinemas, put on the film at gunpoint, and then disappear into the night, leaving behind only a cinema full of people who had stopped taking the Germans seriously.
    Link here:

  53. On the original post,

    “problematic things, e.g. media with historically accurate but objectionable portrayals of gender/race/etc., media with no historical excuse for the above, media that simply ignore women and people of color, comedians/actors/writers who plant their feet firmly in their mouths way too often…”

    One of these things is not like the other – almost any historically accurate portrayal of race is going to be problematic in the sense that it’ll show people being treated badly because of their race.Unless it means media that shares these attitudes because of when it was created?

  54. I thought about that before and found out that there are three things that define if I can enjoy something or not.

    The work itself. If it pisses me off, I get something else – there’s too much out there that I do not HAVE to spent my free time consuming pisses me off. If I want angry, I go code. The only exception is if it’s good enough that the use I get out of it is worth the headache – which can happen, but is rare.
    If the work BORES me, I won’t pick it up either. This is here because I’ve seen certain annoying things often enough that they aren’t even annoying anymore, they just bore me to tears: Example: women only as love interest and then stuffed into the fridge to make the male main character brood around – YAAAAAAAAAAAAAWN.

    If I feel I am supporting nastyness with me reading/watching/paying for it, I will not pick up stuff, no matter how good it is otherwise. Orson Scott Card is one of those. It might not make a big difference to THEM, but I really don’t want to have it on own conscience to support is shitty behaviour, no matter how minuscle the support would be. That’s purely about me.

    My history with the creator. If I’d been bitterly disappointed (in general that requires more than one blunder) I won’t buy future stuff from them either, simply because I don’t trust them to not screw up again. Good example is Bioware. I was a huge fan off them and would buy anything they put out, but between the wonderful ending of Mass Effect 3 and some headbangy writing on the Star Wars MMO I don’t trust them anymore to not piss me off again, so I’ll go take my money somewhere else.

    If that trust’s broken, I’m gone. They can pull back from that (Blizzard did, after I really hated on them after Cata), but it’s hard.

  55. For the mid-twentieth century the prevailing critical approach to art of all types was New Criticism. New Critics cared nothing about the creator of the art, but focused all their attention on the work of art itself. So by default New Critics totally ignored the whole issue Scalzi highlights in this blog entry. Truth be told, most English teachers were educated in New Criticism and carried that approach right into our public classrooms the last half century. That has been changing of late, but the new critical approach still carries a lot of weight.
    Hey, I have even taught Ender’s Game, the novel, to multiple years of high school freshman. And you know what? I never ever mentioned to them anything about Orson Scott Card the writer other than that he is a very successful author. Not a word about his personal politics. I probably did mention that he was a Latter Day Saint. We read the novel for its own sake and focused all our attention on the novel as a work of art. Totally sidestepped and avoided the “problematic” side issues that Scalzi discusses in this thread.
    I fully understand commentators here who do avoid consumption of art that they consider problematic. Yet, the new critics did have a point. Art is art, no matter the creator of the art. The art itself, whether film, novel, poem, painting, whatever, can be appreciated in isolation for itself and its own intrinsic qualities and merit.
    So yes I keep buying Card’s novels as they come out in hardcover. And yes he pockets a dollar or two every time, but I figure he earned the paltry sum from my wallet. He did write the novels. I have no problem with anyone being compensated for working, writing, creating art. I just ignore him and his often reprehensible personal views and actions. Fair enough?

  56. I have the Modified Grandparent Rule.

    To wit: I will put up with ridiculous Fox-news-style statements from my grandparents, because they’re a) my grandparents, and more importantly, b) ninety years old. It’s therefore unlikely that they’ll change or that it’ll matter, substantially, whether or not they do. (Sad, yes, but let’s be pragmatic here.) But my grandparents aren’t public figures, nor is putting up with them giving them money.

    So, with public figures: if they’re reprehensible and dead, I can still buy their works, and while I’ll acknowledge and discuss their problematic elements, I’ll also largely do so in the context of their time. (Lovecraft and Mitchell were…pretty damn racist even for the thirties, as I understand it.) If not, while I may read their works, I’m not going to praise them on any social ,media, and I’ll get them from the library. (Which, as noted above re: used books, doesn’t completely negate the impact, but it comes close enough that I can deal.)

    I’m currently trying to figure out where I stand on certain gray areas. Like–there’s an author who I hear good things about, and who hasn’t written anything horrible AFAIK, but who belongs to a religion with a) extremely bigoted views, and b) a pretty high tithing requirement. I know from my own family that going to a given church doesn’t mean you *agree* with everything that church says, but I am worried about portions of my money going to finance Prop. 8-style laws.

    Also–because I haven’t procrastinated enough here–I find that, if an author makes awful views public, I do often see his or her works in a new light. I don’t know how, for example, the Satan Roofies scene and the marriage dynamic in Rosemary’s Baby worked for people who *didn’t* know Polanski was a scumbag rapist, but watching it in 2008? Oook-y far beyond what I believe was intended.

  57. Also, forgot to add: @Jeff S, I agree that people can change, but I think if you’re in the public eye, it behooves you to make a statement to that effect. (Hell, I think it also does if you’re not, just a more private one if it’s possible and not intrusive–“Hey, guy, I’m sorry about those things I said back in high school. I was a real shithead then.”)
    I’m quite willing to accept change, but I’m never going to assume it. Too cynical, I guess. ;)

  58. I’m in favour of as much objectivity as possible. I have been, and am, on award juries, and since like most SF writers I know a lot of people in the field personally, it is critical to set any personal feelings aside in order to give the work its best chance. I have on occasion argued strongly in favour of work by people whom I personally dislike, and rejected work by friends. I’d expect the same of anyone who is in the position of looking at fiction.

    In the case of reading, it depends on a number of factors. Worldbuilding is important to me, so although I may be unconvinced by how the author writes women, this may not in a given instance be my primary concern (and should not be expected to be my default concern, by the way, just because I happen to be female). As an example, Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure novels, in which Vance’s portrayal of women leaves quite a bit to be desired, yet which remains a personal favourite due to other factors.

  59. Art is art, no matter the creator of the art.

    Art doesn’t travel from the Ethereal Plane of Art, using the artist as a mere conduit through which it emerges into the world unsullied by any of the artist’s petty failings. Art is created. If art had nothing to do with its creator, it would be fungible; there would be no imprint of the artist on the work. Terms like ‘Shakesperean’ wouldn’t exist. A Saul Bellow novel might just as well have sprung from the pen of Raymond Chandler.

    To what degree artists inject themselves into the work, whether to consume art when doing so would give some degree of support or seeming approval to a loathsome artist, how to enjoy problematic works of art; tough questions. “Art is art” and the more common ‘I separate the art from the artist’ are not answers to those questions. They’re cop-outs.

    ajay: that is amazing.

  60. @cranapia: Yeah. I was talking about media consumption identification as it leads to reflexive defense, i.e. going from “I read SoIaF” to “I am a SoIaF fan” to “any criticism of SoIaF is a personal attack on me”.

  61. “One of these things is not like the other – almost any historically accurate portrayal of race is going to be problematic in the sense that it’ll show people being treated badly because of their race.Unless it means media that shares these attitudes because of when it was created?”

    Here I take historically accurate to mean not created at the same time, but created later to reflect an earlier time, but without a current awareness taken into account. A good example would be something like The Lone Ranger. The original radio show was created (along with the subsequent early TV show) not too long after the Wild West shows that modeled a lot of racist Native American depictions had stopped. The way Tonto was depicted looks now terribly racist, but in it’s own time was how many people (wrongly) expected Native American characters to sound/act. The 2013 movie, on the other hand, was rightly criticized for trying to present nearly all aspects of how characters were presented in the 30’s to 50’s adaptations, rather than behaving like a movie made in a time when the racist elements are impossible to ignore.

  62. When I started reading the question with the words ‘historical problem’, I hoped John chose a question that required him to man up and do a math proof. How about taking a question where he has to review the proof to Fermats Enigma. The amazing thing about this one is that it was solved by a guy in his 40s. The vast majority of math/physics groundbreaking work is done by people in their 20s and then they don’t do much after 30.

    John take one for the older people on here and show them that we can keep up with the kids.

  63. I think the best thing is to just acknowledge how the problems of a work and/or creator color our view of it. I told my daughter that I loved Gone With the Wind when I was twelve, because it was about the South, and because Scarlett was so fierce and not beautiful, and blah, blah, blah. But now the thing is unreadable to me because of the racism, the attempt to show the Klan as “defenders of women’s honor”, the classism, etc. Not surprisingly, she found she couldn’t stand to read it, but she went into it knowing what to expect. I haven’t watched a Woody Allen or a Polanski film in twenty years, because what I know of them is going to taint the experience. If Mike Tyson appears on screen I think “rapist!”, and can’t for a second think of him as an actor playing any other character.

    I don’t believe art should be banned, and only rarely am I in favor of organized boycotts. But I think we owe it to one another to voice what we perceive as problems and listen to what others point out as problems.

  64. @Chaosprime:

    Ah, thanks for clarifying that! A relevant link, I think, is How to be a fan of problematic things. Inevitably, we’re all going to be fans of… things that have distasteful and offensive elements because culture doesn’t magically exist above and beyond a screwed up and imperfect world. Being a fan of problematic things doesn’t automatically make anyone a garbage monster, but failing to own it sure doesn’t help.

  65. mythago–The new critics were simply not trying to answer any of the “problematic” questions. They focus entirely on the intrinsic merits of the work of art itself essentially blinding themselves intentionally to any outside factors or influences. Now, as you correctly point out, the work of art itself might reek of some negative trait of the creator. New critics would take notice of such a stench from within the work of art itself. But their approach was not a “cop out” rather it was a very narrow, focused way of criticizing a piece of art to see if it was worthy of inclusion in the canon of great art. Of course in these times the very idea of canonical works of art is challenged by many. Me, I still like the idea of a canon of art to look to as representative of the best of cultural products.

  66. @Eric Saveau
    That… that was sarcasm, right?


    It was so wonderful that it made me drop Bioware as developer.

    So, yes, sarcasm. Sorry, missed the quotation markes.

    Mind you – I never clamoured for a better ending or demanded they change it, but the ending itself and Biowares handling of the shitstorm that followed it left a real strong distaste in my mouth. Kinda “well, if THAT’s whatcha want to do, go ahead, but I ain’t a fan anymore” reaction.
    Gave them another chance with the Star Wars MMO, but ran into a huge, HUGE wallbanger with my Sith Knights storyline and well, that’s it, how they say.

    But that’s more about seriously dumb writing and breaking the author/audience contract than about ethical misgivings. Granted, I have some strong opinions about writing. ;)


    Coming back to the how art relates to the artist, from my personal experience as artist myself?

    All art is a piece of me, a reflection of my life, my views, my experiences – even if my characters are a total 180° from my personal views, I’m still the one who makes them speak. It’s my craft and I take pride in it. I practice, I learn, I study, I strive to improve. It’s hard work! Fun, but still, work!

    I highly dislike it when my contribution to the creation of my art gets played down, and the whole “ignore the artist, focus on the art, that’s the only thing important” does exactly that.

    Especially since that’s usually the justification used to scam creators out of the fruits of their own labor.

  67. mythago: “Art is art” and the more common ‘I separate the art from the artist’ are not answers to those questions. They’re cop-outs.

    I don’t know if its a cop out. I’d go back to my first rule which says the first cut is whether the art forwards the problematic part of the artist or not. I can judge the art for being racist if it forwards racist ideas. And if it forwards racist ideas, it doesn’t really matter if the artist is/was a racist or not. On the other hand, if the art shows people of different races as equals, then do I have to inject a “yeah, but the guy who made the art is a racist”?

    If the art is racist or sexist,then judge the art for being racist or sexist. If the art presents equality, then condemning the good art for the bad thoughts of the artist is a kind of ad hominem, attacking the speaker who made the argument rather than attacking the argument itself.

  68. Here I take historically accurate to mean not created at the same time, but created later to reflect an earlier time, but without a current awareness taken into account.

    mikes75: OK, I think I understand that. So, if you write a novel set in the 1850s, then your job is to make sure that the novel is as accurate compared to modern understandings of the 1850s as possible.

  69. @mikes75 Yeah, that’s the sort of thing I had in mind. (And one of the reasons I did not go see the “Lone Ranger” movie). That was interesting in that it was historically accurate to the source material and mores (horrible, horrible racism), but not appropriate to any actual historical representation of Native American characters not built on a stereotype. Which they absolutely could have done with some decent research and a Native American actor without too much “damage” to the storyline, imo. I’m already regarding the upcoming “Peter Pan” movie with some horror because Hollywood has decided to complete the horribleness trifecta in casting a white woman as a stereotype of a Native American woman (Tiger Lily), feistily clutching the Damsel in Distress ball, while waiting for the Great White Savior (boy, in this case)…

    Thanks for answering, John! I like hearing all the different voices weigh in. I more focus on texts than creators myself, though I’m always disappointed when an actor or author I like says something abysmally stupid or offensive.

    One of the big problems I have with historical fiction or even sci-fi/fantasy/spec-fic (all of which I like!) is the tendencies towards laziness and erasure. Like…London, England, 1800s. Not all of the citizens were white by a long shot, not all of them were English-speaking. So why are so many stories set there all-white with maybe a little Cockney accent thrown in for class markers?
    Exploratory ship out in the Orion Nebula? Why the hell are there no women aboard? There’d better be a reason for that doesn’t make me roll my eyes or I’m going to set the book down and walk away.

    I give a little more credit on works that do address some historical/social bias, even when they may fall short on others. At least they’re making some steps.

  70. ronboakes2013 @ 3/19 16:23:

    When this came out, not only did his future career as a CCM artist go away, but stores pulled his past albums, radio stations quit playing his music, etc. It was like this one event made him not exist past or present. Personally, I thought that was an overreaction.

    It’s not an overreaction if you take the position that his behavior made it clear that his past work was a lie.

    rick gregory @ 3/19 16:36:

    I think it’s also relevant (to me at least) to consider whether someone made early mistakes and then became a better person (for my values of better). For example, if someone made sexist remarks in their early career but hasn’t in 20 years and seems, by their current actions and words, to have left that attitude behind them, I’m likely to write off their early remarks as uneducated, uninformed or the like and not let it affect my opinion on their current work.

    There is definitely a strain of activism that says people whove been horrible in the past can never be forgiven, and I agree with you rather than with them. Though it has to be active repentance, not simply waiting for time to heal the wound; the extremes on that spectrum are “they said that in 1985,” on one end, and on the other “they said that in 1985 and have since called themselves out for it, acknowledged it what wrong, and embraced and actively promoted the opposite view.”

  71. Hershele Ostropoler @ March 20, 2014 at 14:47:

    When this came out, not only did his future career as a CCM artist go away, but stores pulled his past albums, radio stations quit playing his music, etc.

    Its not an overreaction if you take the position that his behavior made it clear that his past work was a lie.

    I don’t think that was the reason.

    I think it was that by his behavior, he questioned the worldview that CCM exists to maintain. Conservative Christianity can only keep its members within the fold if everyone who is in any position of respect or influence adheres to all its tenets (and anyone who is outside can be demonized.)

    Someone within the group who disagrees, whether in word or deed, is dangerous because they might put the idea in people’s heads that they could think for themselves. Keeping even his old recordings around would still remind people of his existence and thus his dangerous non-conformity.

    If you want to read more, find Dianna E Anderson’s blog and read the CCM-related posts from January.

    To bring this back on topic: the case of that musician is less one of whether to enjoy problematic things than an insular community protecting itself from dissent.

  72. When I think of “problematic” artists and their art, I can’t help thinking of Woody Allen.

    In his case, the problem is that it’s really hard to separate him from his films. All of the films of his that I’ve seen are ultimately about him — his hang-ups, his fantasies, and all the skeevy stuff that he does in real life. I can’t say how much of my revulsion for his films is due to the awfulness of his stand-in characters in his films and how much is due to what I know about his real-life behavior informing my view of what he does in his films.

    I find the same thing in Orson Scott Card’s books, especially the Ender series. He writes well, so you keep reading, but by the end, the moral nihilism of the story is so awful I wish I hadn’t started. After reading him, I can’t say I’m surprised that I find his politics equally morally questionable.

    One thing occurs to me: to what extent is it the case that problematic artists produce unproblematic art, and to what extent are we simply blind to the problematic aspects of their art because it’s the kind of thing we’ve grown up with and never thought about. (I can’t help thinking how nobody seemed to see anything problematic about Lolita for decades after it was published.)

  73. AMM said: “(I can’t help thinking how nobody seemed to see anything problematic about Lolita for decades after it was published.)”

    Unless you mean some other book called ‘Lolita’, then I think you are mistaken, there. A book that had be published abroad first and that the author originally intended to be published under a pseudonym and that was banned by customs in multiple countries originally? I think a lot of people found the material problematic. But there are few things that count in the book’s favor when examining why there isn’t more issues over it: the author describes the narrator as ‘hateful’ and a bad person, it is a highly literary and not particularly explicit book (despite its reputation, its not that explicit), the narrator specifically recognizes that what he does and how he behaves is wrong (specifically calling what he has done as rape) and it doesn’t glorify or condone it, afaik.

    I mean, there is a book written for educators about how to teach “Lolita” to students specifically because the book could be considered problematic, so I don’t think it’s fair to say that the book has never been viewed that way until recently.

  74. If I couldn’t enjoy anything problematic, I couldn’t enjoy anything.

    Sexism, racism, classism, ageism, ableism, etc. permeate our society and seep into everything it creates. Some examples are more blatant than others, but it’s all problematic.

    All of it.

    If the marketing guys who dominate the gaming industry (to pick a random example) say we can’t have games with female protagonists because circular argument, does that mean I have to stop playing video games?

    I hope not. Hopefully it’s good enough to focus on the games that break that rule and call them out for everything they do wrong.

  75. I think about this, when I have to, on three axes:
    1) Contemporary context. If someone embedded in their social context wrote something we’d now consider reprehensible- was it reasonable to expect them to “know better”? If not – well OK, guarded enjoyment is still possible. Less so, if they’re current and still being a dick.
    2) Fool-or-rogue? The example cited by John Barnes of Ezra Pound, or one closer to my heart, the works of P.G. “Plum” Wodehouse – was someone knowingly siding with the Forces of Evil, or were they simply misguided, misinformed, befuddled? I can never completely forget Wodehouse picking the wrong team, but he was a somewhat unworldly chap by modern standards.
    3) Work or external? Did the person write horrid stuff in their body of work, or was it something external? We’re quite happy to buy a car without considering whether the man who painted it beats his wife, or the woman who fits the windscreen is a tax-dodger, or the assembly-line manager is a racist or a homophobe.

    Some of the great works of antiquity (even the ones where we know the provenance) were doubtless created by people we’d consider morally bankrupt today, however talented.

    Finally: should we hold those in creative industries to the very highest standards – or just those of the average Joe? I think we give too much credence to what celebrities think about various issues, just because they are celebrities. They’re encouraged to play along with this by the way people hang on their every word- but expecting someone to have massive insight just because they can strike a pose, kick a ball or compose a decent melody/paragraph makes no real sense when you analyse it dispassionately.

    I reserve my most stringent bans for those who (a) are in a position to know better (b) are actually in a position of power and influence (not just famous) and (c) *still* decide to serve the powers of Darkness. As a consequence of this, I will never knowingly do anything that will put a penny in the pocket of Rupert Murdoch, for instance.

  76. There are people who blame actors for anything said by the characters they play, or for evil deeds they do. These people are stupid and crazy.

    But there are a lot more people who will quote a line from a first-person narrator, and say that the author said it (true) as if it were evidence the author believes it (bullshit). This is just as stupid, but somehow apparently seems OK in a way that the actor thing doesn’t. Nabokov has more than one unreliable and/or reprehensible narrator (the narrator of Pale Fire is a laughably egotistical jerk). But even some people who aren’t stupid enough to believe that Nabokov is Humbert Humbert still make the mistake of thinking Lolita is somehow a celebration of pedophilia.

    Honestly, humans.

  77. I feel like this about k-pop idol groups (Korean popular music in “boy band” and “girl band” flavors). Even though these kids start out as early as 13 and have deplorable working conditions, I still really love a lot of the music. I just hate supporting the entertainment conglomerates that create these groups.

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