Thursday, May 17, 2018

If we start banning people of bad moral character, where do we stop?


(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and stuff.co.nz, May 16.)

I have never heard the American R&B singer R. Kelly – not consciously, anyway – so it’s unlikely that I’ll lose any sleep over the announcement that the digital music streaming service Spotify has taken his records off its playlist. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued.

Spotify removed Kelly from its playlist as part of a new “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct” policy. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the implementation of this policy is probably related in some way to the uproar over Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent naming and shaming of countless alleged sexual predators in show business.

The virulent Me Too and Time’s Up movements, which have given a voice to women claiming to have been the victims of celebrity abusers, has achieved such power and momentum that companies in the entertainment business have been forced into damage control mode. There is a hint of panic in the way some of these corporations have hastened to protect their precious brands from stars whose sexual histories have become a liability.

The world has witnessed a veritable parade of the disgraced as previously respected entertainment names have been sacked or blacklisted, often on the basis of unproven allegations. 

Weinstein and Bill Cosby are the highest-profile casualties so far – found guilty by non-denial in Weinstein’s case and by a criminal trial in Cosby’s. But I didn’t realise how many more names had been implicated in this unedifying saga until I conducted a search on Google.

Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck, Steven Seagal, Garrison Keillor, the writer-director James Toback and the TV host Charlie Rose I knew about. But I was unaware of allegations against others including Richard Dreyfuss, celebrity chef Mario Batali, Larry King, Charlie Sheen, Oliver Stone, John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone, along with many more whose names were unfamiliar to me but are obviously prominent in the entertainment world.

In some of these cases, offending was acknowledged and apologised for; in others it was strenuously denied. Either way, reputations are tarnished, perhaps irreparably. The principle that people are innocent until proven guilty has been trampled underfoot in the media feeding frenzy.

But back to R. Kelly. Even cursory research into his background reveals allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, some of it too unpleasant to detail here. He has never been convicted of an offence (he was acquitted on child pornography charges over a sex video involving an under-age girl and separately paid $250,000 to settle a claim that he had sex with a 15-year-old), but a social media campaign called #MuteRKelly has had him in its sights for some time.

Spotify insists it doesn’t censor content because of the behaviour of the performer, but its own statements suggest otherwise. Its head of content told Billboard magazine, in tortuous management-speak: “We look at issues around hateful conduct, where you have an artist or another creator who has done something off-platform that is so particularly out of line with our values, egregious, in a way that it becomes something that we don't want to associate ourselves with.”

This is where it gets intriguing, because if R. Kelly has been censored because of bad behaviour, as seems obvious, it could set a fascinating precedent.

Consider this. One of my all-time favourite movies is Chinatown, from 1974. It was directed by Roman Polanski, who fled America in 1977 after being charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He remains a fugitive from the American courts today, although he lives as a free man in Europe.

Should I refuse to watch Chinatown because of the loathsome Polanski’s behaviour with young Samantha Gailey at Jack Nicholson’s place? There is a moral case for taking that stance, and Spotify’s action in respect of R. Kelly suggests that moral judgments can now be brought to bear in deciding what people should see and hear.

But this is tricky territory, because many of the artists, actors, musicians and writers we admire led less than exemplary lives.

Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry served a prison term for having sex with a minor. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin. Hollywood idol Errol Flynn’s reputation was permanently damaged by allegations of sex with under-age girls.

Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old and Mick Jagger wrote a song about enticing a 15-year-old upstairs. Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso had a penchant for girls young enough to be their granddaughters, and Picasso was sometimes abusive as well.
Woody Allen is seriously creepy, at the very least, and even Charles Dickens abandoned his wife and family for a teenager.

It’s a bit unrealistic to talk about boycotting these men’s artistic creations, no matter how much we might disapprove of their morals or behaviour. So as vile as R. Kelly might be, in the interests of consistency perhaps his work should be left alone too.

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