The warnings of George Orwell play a significant role in the official philosophical anxiety of SethBlogs.
THE ORWELLING UP SERIES:
I: FEATURING DJ MORALS (you are here)
I am currently reading Orwell’s most famous contemplation of a thought-controlled society, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 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.
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 troubling 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:
[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 PLAY, 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.
THE ORWELLING UP SERIES:
I: FEATURING DJ MORALS (you were just here)