• SETHICS 30.06.2016

    The warnings of George Orwell play a significant role in the official philosophical anxiety of Sethblogs. I am currently reading Orwell’s most famous contemplation of a thought-controlled society, 1984, and as I read about Winston Smith and his work at the Ministry of Truth, I find myself increasingly perceiving Orwellian thoughts and policies around me.


    ORWELLING UP: CASE I: 

    On the May 1st “Stepping up and speaking out” episode of CBC radio’s Unreserved, Rosanna Deerchild interviewed Deejay NDN (Ian Campeau), who says he now restricts the content he plays (and listens to) on the basis of two moral maxims:

    (1) If the lyrics are “oppressive,” and/or (2) if the musician is “oppressive” in their personal life, then Campeau will not play the associated tunes for his audience, nor will he keep them on his personal playlist.

    For instance, when it comes to sexism, Campeau says, “I guess it was kinda just like waking up to the idea of misogyny, and how I fit into the role of perpetuating it… And, you know, playing specific artists who have [been] known to have been misogynistic or have been harmful to women. I just choose not to promote them anymore. And it’s just kind of, you know, I just don’t align with those ideas anymore.”

    Maxim 1 is, I think, an understandable rule of play. I can appreciate why a DJ would not want to lend their volume to content they believe is unethical.  Yet I think this is a delicate and potentially damaging code of curation; if we’re not careful we may find ourselves excommunicating music that seems unethical, or tiptoes near the promotion of harmful ideas, but is actually commentary that is morally and/or artistically beneficial. As Campeau says:

    “I try to not listen to any music that’s oppressive in any sort of way… it’s been a real learning curve and real, you know, prioritizing of values.” For instance, “…you have things like Kendrick Lamar’s last album, which was incredibly racially advanced in the way he was discussing topics… but he was still misogynistic within it, so as much as he was trying to elevate his community, he was still oppressing half of it.”

    I see a few moral quandaries that will be difficult to solve here, but ultimately I think it’s reasonable for a private curator not to propagate art to which they are morally opposed. Regardless, my concerns are doubled in the second maxim, so I’ll focus my criticism there.

    Maxim 2 calls for the DJ to assess the moral merits of people whose artwork they would otherwise endorse. For instance, Campeau says he’s “not going to play Chris Brown anymore after what happened with Rihanna, that was a really easy choice…” (Brown was charged with assault and making criminal threats towards Rihanna, and he pled guilty to “assault with intent of doing great bodily injury.”) But, Campeau says, this culling of his playlist “…gets really, really tough when you start realizing how all of your heroes are not exactly what they appear… There are so many… things like David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Africa Bambaataa… like, there’s all these people who have done harm, it seems that everybody seems to be okay with that as long as they make good music?”

    Campeau’s  (hereafter DJ Morals’) code of ethics calls for a purity of artistic souls, which—if it catches on as an ethical maxim—will unduly limit the art we’ll be able to experience.

    BILL: Are you going to see the new Hamlet production?

    TED: Haven’t you heard? It’s been discovered that Shakespeare once said something sexist, so he’s officially been removed from the Approved Artists List.

    BILL: Seriously? Damn, I liked him.

    TED: I know. So did I. But we can’t very well endorse that kind of sexism by enjoying his so-called art.

    BILL: Of course. You’re right. To be sexist, or not to be sexist, that is the question.

    TED: Um, even alluding to one of his quotes is kind of sexist. Sorry, I can’t be friends with you anymore.

    BILL: Fair enough.

    Now, dear DJ Morals, I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize behaviour that you think is harmful (I’m doing so right now ;). I’m arguing that, unfortunately, artistic and moral merit are not always linked. And so, to limit your catalog of musicians to those who have lived perfect moral existences will clip the wings of the music you play.

    There may be enough “moral” musicians (or at least potentially “immoral” ones who haven’t been caught yet) for individual DJs to still put out good stuff, but since DJ Morals is making a moral argument (he said he’s aiming to “end racism in Canada” and “to change society…” such that his “daughters [feel] safe walking home alone at night”), he’s arguing others should follow his lead. And, since he is clearly a member of the movement of so-called “social justice” which currently dominates popular media, his policy could conceivably be confused for good ethics and become the common moral code of music appreciation.

    Consequently, as our ethics become more nuanced over time, there may be increasing numbers of artists (including the next Beatles or Wayne Gretzky) who will be ineligible to perform for us. And, if it’s the case that historically oppressed cultures are more likely to be uneducated, perhaps they’re more likely to be caught on the wrong side of the moral law, and so DJ Moral’s policy may disproportionately affect the artistic output of the very communities he argues need “elevation.” Moreover, while our ethics may be improving over time, our public moral consensus is still fallible, and so if we limit ourselves only to the artists who are currently morally correct, we may be closing our minds to new moral considerations.

    This moral purity requirement for performers isn’t a far-fetched fantasy/fear. As I discussed in THE SEPARATION OF WORK AND STATE, there are many popular pundits who already demand that sports leagues suspend players who are accused of crimes. Blasphemously enough, I don’t think workers should be suspended for anything outside of work that doesn’t make them a danger to their co-workers, but at the very least, I am baffled that even those who are still legally presumed innocent should be excommunicated from their profession on the grounds that they are believed by the public to be guilty.

    Even more drastically, recall that Jian Ghomeshi was fired from the CBC, not for illegal acts, but for admitting to his bosses that he took part in consensual sexual behaviour that they deemed immoral. If the rumors are true that, along with being a doubleplus sexual wrongdoer (to use Orwell’s “newspeak”), Ghomeshi was a workplace bully, then that would have been an understandable reason to fire him. But the CBC has no place in the bedrooms of its hosts.

    Nevertheless, the CBC and DJ Morals are burgeoning Big Brothers. They seem to believe it is their duty not simply to discuss morality with their audience, but to punish those they believe have crossed moral lines in their personal lives. This would be dangerous enough if the CBC and DJ Morals were infallible ethicists, but what if they’re moral morons? The CBC daily demonstrates their eligibility for such a description with their sexist policy on all gender discussions. Meanwhile, DJ Morals is an admitted former enjoyer of misogynistic rap music. (I have always despised such lyrics, so, by his moral math, it seems I get to announce that I am a better person than he is.)

    Our ongoing attempts to improve our ethics have potential for much good. But we must be careful in our zeal to promote good behavior to avoid becoming thought police who not only challenge the ideas and behaviours with which we disagree, but also vaporize anyone who disagrees, or is accused of terrible actions or words outside of their artistic life.

    ORWELLING UP: CASE II coming soon to a Sethblogs near you.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 12:17 PM

  • 8 Responses

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    • Tom Durrie Says:

      I’m very glad that you have brought this up. Associating an artist’s personal activities or beliefs with creative output is foolish and misguided. Artistic endeavours should be judged on their own merit, not on the personality of their creator. I am reminded of a very irritating position taken by Daniel J. Levitin in his very popular book “This Is Your Brain on Music”. he says, and I paraphrase, that he can’t abide the music of Richard Wagner, because he was an anti-Semite and a “notoriously” unpleasant person. While both of these may be partially true, they have nothing to do with the quality or content of Wagner’s operas. As a matter of fact, the operas are imbued with themes of self-sacrifice, moral struggle, love and humantiy. I like to remind people that for the first production of his final opera “Parsifal”–an opera that deals with, among other things, religious ecstasy–Wagner chose as conductor Hermann Levy, a Jew.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Tom! Yes, the distinction between artist and art, which both you and Natalie have helped me to understand, is a crucial one that all journalists should be aware of before going into an interview like this.

    • Tom2 Says:

      I’m sorry, but this is just another justification for Seth to do anything he wants to in his regular life (like parental abuse) as long as his writing toes the moral line. What’s next, puppy abuse? Oh nooo, he’s already done that!

    • SethBlog Says:

      Well put, Tom2! I do have a penchant for abusing parents by forcing them to resist their puppy oppressors who dominate their household without ever contributing. If resisting bully puppies is wrong, I don’t want to be right. 😉

    • Tarrin Says:

      What’s his position on “immoral” artists who have confessed their sins, and now repudiate their former actions?

      Or artists who wrote pure and innocent idealistic verses in their youth, then committed sins later in life?

      Wow, the more I think about it, the longer the list of artists there are whose wrongdoings (based on the Chris Brown example) will exclude them.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Good question. Actually, Ms. Deerchild did ask Mr. Campeau about the repentant sinners, and he said:

      “Absolutely, we need room for rehabilitation, and growth as a human being, one hundred percent. But there has to be that acknowledgement of past crimes against humanity, if you want to call it that.”

      Yikes. Admittedly, he showed a little more humility in the interview than he does in this quote (he admitted there that he’s still figuring some of these things out). Nevertheless, I find his confidence in the righteousness of this plan to be unnerving.

      I like your second question, too. Is the art of a former star retroactively no long worthy because a later version of the artist has now done something wrong? As far as I can tell, the answer is Yes. Campeau seems to be suggesting that playing a musician is condoning any bad acts they have ever been caught doing.

      I’m also interested to know what percentage of a piece of art would have to have been done by a sinner for it to be disqualified from consideration.

    • Janice Fiamengo Says:

      I love your phrase “purity of artistic souls.” There’s a line in Hamlet in which Hamlet says, in response to someone hoping for ‘justice,’ that if we all got justice, none of us would escape hanging. I think Jesus had a little maxim about the one who was without sin casting the first stone. Obviously, our post-Christian do-gooders at the CBC don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their own imperfections. Quite a remarkable phenomenon, and thanks for writing about it with such wit.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Janice. Yes, it’s amazing how comfortable the media is with examining artists and pundits by their personal lives (and sometimes failings) instead of the content of their ideas and art. As you say, given the shortage of perfect people in the world, do they not see that few if anyone will be safe from their 21st century McCarthyism?

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