And this begs the question: Who decides what is moral, who decides whose work you are allowed to see?
Comedian Louis C.K. was recently involved in a sex scandal. He did not rape a woman, but he made several women watch him while he was masturbating. HBO reacted by removing Louie’s previous work from their HBOnow service and his film distributor has cancelled the distribution of Louie’s new film titled “I Love You, Daddy”
Kevin Spacey’s career is now pretty much over. Studios go so far as to try to replace him even in films that are already finished. These are two of a series of sex scandals now emerging out of Hollywood, and two examples of extreme reactions.
In France meanwhile, hundreds of women have raised their voices to accuse those who have abused them in the past, in part fueled by these stories coming out of Hollywood. I wonder if Europe is more level-headed here and seeks punishment for the abusers while at the same time still respecting their work.
Then versus now
If you remember, legendary filmmaker Roman Polanski raped a 13 year old girl in 1977. Did TV stations forever boycott him? Did Netflix ban his films from their library? No, they didn’t. Perhaps because this scandal happened a few years ago instead of now, and today’s climate is full of knee-jerk reactions, oversensitivity and easily triggered people. Everyone is permanently panicking.
Media distributors today can no longer risk any public anger, always afraid that it would damage their sales. So rather than think before they do something, they simply do it and ask questions later or never. And this is more dangerous today than it ever was, because a large part of media distribution is now in the hands of a few private companies like Apple, Netflix, Google or Amazon.
If they feel a person is a risk to their clean image or a danger to their shareholder value, they just might drop that person’s work. And that’s not a good situation, as it creates a potential for censorship out of fear. And censorship out of fear is self-censorship. What if the moral compass of the shareholders changes? Will films by lesbian filmmakers be removed? Or films by gun nuts like Charlton Heston? Do we go to libraries to burn all of Martin Luther’s work because he was a raging bloodthirsty Jew-hater? Who decides what stays and what goes?
What makes this worse is that for most people, being an asshole is a temporary and contextual thing. Louis C.K. can be an asshole who jerks off in front of women in one moment but a caring father and successful comedian another time. And all three things are true, according to anecdotes at least. They can all be going on inside the same mind. We can punish the assholeness but still enjoy the genius. For some decades, society understood this, but now it seems we’ve forgotten.
The victims are real, so give them justice
I am not saying that the women and teenage boys who were the victims here are not victims. They are. And the people who acted badly towards them did. So bring these cases to court and let judges decide. The people I mentioned above have admitted their guilt, so it won’t even take long. Stick them in jail, fine them, give the victims compensation — if the perpetrators hadn’t been famous, we would just follow the normal script that society has prepared in such cases, which is to activate the judiciary system and dole out a just punishment.
There isn’t really anything more that we as society can do to help the past victims, but to prevent future ones we can strive to ensure things like these don’t happen again. Rape has been in steady decline for decades now, so we’re doing quite well. But some countries have recently had an increase in rape and sexual misconduct, so we can do better.
Some big questions
The situation right now leaves me with more questions than answers, so I’m not saying that I have a recipe. But what I deeply feel is that the media companies are overreacting. I hope these scandals drum up some public discourse that could help us find the answers.
- Who decides whose work is worth distributing?
- Should this depend on an the creator’s beliefs and actions or should their work stand alone?
- Should we leave it to large American companies with American moral compasses and a shareholder-driven agenda to decide this?
- Shouldn’t each individual decide whose work they want to support and for what reason they might stop supporting someone?
To me it seems like society is outsourcing its decisions to large U.S. companies more and more. Which phone will I get? Google decides. What will my keyboard feel like? Apple decides. What books can I still read? Amazon will make that choice for me, and if they change their opinion in the future, they will just remove any offending books from my Kindle. And finally, what products do I even know? Facebook decides. They know me better than any living person does.
I’m aware that free will could be an illusion, but in the end I’d prefer to still live by my illusion of free will, not Hollywood’s.