Sunday, 1 December 2013

This Really Will Get You Thinking.....

Here's a good one for debate - this is a very interesting issue that I posed a few days ago in the following way:

I've never had any interest in the Lostprophets, nor any familiarity with their music, but after seeing on BBC News yesterday that the Lostprophets' frontman Ian Watkins has pled guilty to child sex offences, I was wondering what effect would it have on your perception/enjoyment of the music if you learned that your favourite band/artist had committed some of the worst child-sex crimes on record?

Technically it wouldn't change the quality of the music they'd produced (although one might read the lyrics with a new darkness), but how do you think you'd react to, say, Radiohead's albums if it turned out to be Thom Yorke, or David Bowie's albums if it turned out to be him, or Pink Floyd's if it turned out to be Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour, or The Beatles if it turned out to be Paul McCartney? (replace any of those with *your* favourites). Would it ruin the albums for you, or could you find a way to conceptually separate the quality of the music you've always loved from the horrible sex offences of the person writing the songs?

I submitted this question in my Mensa group, in a science-theology group, in a music group, in two philosophy groups, and on a debating café-style forum. This response was my favourite - from a lady called Daphne Richards:

"A human being doesn't stop or start being a human being, no matter what they do. A piece of music is, at best, an expression of something the artist was feeling at the time; not an accurate representation of their whole character and life. Can a rapist not fall in love? And write a beautiful song about it? Sure they can."

Yes, there's a profoundly accurate observation there - just as a piece of music is an expression of something the artist was feeling at the time, and not an accurate representation of their whole character and life - it is also the case that our sins are predominantly a product of what we were feeling at the time, with many underlying causes, and they too are not the whole representation of what it means to be human. It is important to note that in all likelihood we are all capable of reprehensible acts as well as very noble deeds - and in being human we all are tapping into something deep, mysterious, and far grander than ourselves.

Whether such sex offences ought to cause one to sever any emotional and artistic ties to their favourite musicians I cannot say, that's up to you (the responses to this were mixed). But I find it a frightfully good question, because it causes one to ponder all sorts of other uncomfortable questions about ourselves;

What is our cut-off point for sins of the artist that no longer remain palatable?

How easily can we conceptually and emotionally separate the wrongs of the artist from the things they produce?

Is beauty or brilliance diminished by the sins of the composer?

Are we all capable of the very worst indictments to which we subject others so objectively?

Do we find it too easy to forgive ourselves and too hard to forgive others?

Yes, frightfully good questions indeed. My own personal feeling is that finding out our favourite artist committed some of the worst child-sex crimes on record couldn't help but cause us to feel differently about those albums we've loved for so long. I can't deny that I probably would never listen to Dark Side Of The Moon, Highway 61 Revisited or Astral Weeks with the same feelings ever again if the above indictments crawled out of the woodwork onto any of those artists - but then even in the past twenty five years I don't suppose I've ever listened to those albums (or any for that matter) with the same feelings on consecutive occasions.

Feeling differently about the albums need not mean eradicating them from future consideration, or removing them from our record collection - but equally there is enough decent music out there still to choose from if we did decide that we no longer wanted to listen to them in light of what we'd found out (or put money in the pockets of the artists through further CD sales).

I could, I think, continue to appreciate those great works for the qualities they imbue, but I would hope that rather than looking to dismissively excoriate the artist, I would be moved to look even more deeply into a human condition that places my favourite artists alongside those we so easily dismiss as reprehensible fiends that seem beyond the pale. I would also (I hope) be moved to recognise that human beings - those we like, those we hate, and those in between - are a medley of complex components, each demonstrating a patchwork of good and bad qualities - with some of those components very disturbing and some very stupendous, all going on in individual human minds.

A friend called Jacqui in the café-style forum raised a good point about people like Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13 year old cousin - because it must be remembered that people's attitudes to it then were a lot different than they are now. Many fewer people would have had such a problem with it back in the 1950s (although even then there was uproar) - much less so in, say, 7th century Arabia or in early Roman times when 12-14 was thought to be a good age for marriage for a girl as they took menstruation to be a sign that they were ripe for fertility.

Attitudes to paedophilia are changing all the time - and I wonder if in becoming much more mindful of tackling paedophilia we are actually in danger of going too far the other way. While I'm sure no one will want to resist the goal of doing all we can to expose paedophilia, protect victims and potential future victims, bring the culprits to justice, and put every measure in place to see an end to it, it is evident to me that there's a heavy price to pay too.

As a result of this increased effort to tackle paedophilia we've created a fear culture that robs us of something special - our ability to feel comfortable around children. I've heard countless stories of men being very anxious about having their photo taken with young nieces or nephews at family parties for fear that someone will think one of the child's hands looks to be deceptively near his crotch; I've heard that many teachers are terrified of getting too close or involved with their pupils and being accused of over-stepping the boundaries (even a hug is out of the question now); I've heard that department stores are finding it harder than ever to get volunteers for a Santa Clause in their shop at Christmas because they fear the ramifications of having children on their knee.

People are afraid; afraid of being photographed in the wrong way, afraid of seeing images of children, afraid of sharing pictures of their children on to friends on social networking sites, afraid of tactility, afraid of getting too close, afraid of being caught looking at children or young teenagers in the wrong way, and probably in many cases afraid of the obsession with these things.

Have we gone too far the other way in creating a fear culture that makes us uncomfortable around children because we're always wondering what people think or what's going to appear online the next way? Or has our increased mindfulness been a case of the right balance being struck, and a necessary correlative of the human desire to come down hard on the association between sex and children?

I suppose my intuitive feeling is that in a world in which too may sex crimes have for centuries gone unchallenged, unpunished and often unreported, it is good that people are galvanised towards seeing that change. But in the process we are going to become (and are already becoming) more dystopian as we surveil, scrutinise, monitor and record with the kind of nanny-statism once predicted in the likes of Nineteen Eighty Four. If our more prescient twentieth century writers (like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess) foresaw one key thing, it was that we shouldn’t enforce moral probity from the top down - it has to come from the bottom up. That is to say, real moral progress is laissez faire progress where humans feel value, self-worth and kinship, rather than a command economy top-down progress that looks to catalyse change by relying on a totalitarian hegemony.

Moreover, we've seen with in the works of Huxley, Orwell and Burgess (and others) that a State hegemony exercised solely for the good of its citizens may be the most repressive and reprehensible of all, because fallen men and women can never hope to rule as if they are gods. As history has so often shown, a tyranny that attempts to rule as though it is Divine in stature will often turn out to be more reprehensible than the 'fiends' it hopes to make good.  Those great works like Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange show (among other things) that our peregrinations can become nightmares if journeys are unhealthily conflated with destinations. Thus, it helps, I think, to develop a studied detachment from this world’s obsessively vaunted goals and try to embody as much human grace and kindness in our pursuits.

Here's why. I wonder if people's biggest fear, regarding the really unspeakable crimes, is, perhaps like all crimes (violence, theft, murder), that just about everyone is capable of them under certain circumstances. Could that be true, or is it a supposition that goes too far, I wonder? We outwardly repudiate what we fear, and we condemn those who do things we outwardly repudiate, which may mean we are only condemning what we fear about ourselves when we look deep within the self. Consequently, is our big collective fear and condemnation not actually just a vilification of others, but in fact a mirror that reflects back our own spectre of darkness and immoral capabilities? And do most of us even have the courage to ask such a question of ourselves?

Perhaps it also must be considered that humans are very good at hating - we humans have always had people to hate - rival tribes, adherents of other religions, people of a lower classes, people we can exploit, people with different colour skin, people with a different nationality, people out of work, people of a different sexual persuasion - the list goes on. What's clear now as we in the West become ever-more civilised, is that we are running out of people to hate, condemn, vilify and dehumanise - and sex offenders have become the easiest left to direct those feelings towards.

Let's not pretend that sex-crimes are not abhorrent - of course they are - and we should do all we can to stop them. But let's at least open ourselves up to the consideration that if we find ourselves too easily looking to hate, condemn, vilify and dehumanise people, and that those expressions might be because of our own fears about what we might be capable of when pushed to limits beyond what we are used to, then these expressions and feelings will do us no good in the end. If we are to confront the things talked about above while paying ample regard to what it actually means to be human, I think we are going to have to say that most of us are capable of great things and terrible things - and that it is only in realising this fact that we can see the potential 'unspeakable criminal' in ourselves and see the vulnerable, flawed, insecure human being that lurks beneath the exterior of the 'unspeakable criminal'. If we accomplish this, we have the best chance allowing kindness, grace, love, mercy and compassion to be a prevailing force in our treatment of others.

That's about as much as I want to say on the issues raised above - excepting one issue. A moment ago I asked whether we humans are capable of those unspeakable crimes for which we vilify others. In my next Blog I'm going to give more extensive consideration to that question.

* Picture courtesy of