Can we still appreciate content made by a creator whose views and actions have inflicted harm on others? This question is by no means new, but it is still an important one. Numerous creators throughout history have been abusive, racist, or just generally unpleasant people. In the last few years, huge movements like #MeToo have outed many creators as sexual abusers over multiple creative industries. In light of 2020’s BLM protests and JK Rowling’s transphobic essay, I know many people are grappling with their feelings about art they consume. This post is not designed to convince anyone of what they should think, but as a series of thought experiments and a toolkit to help you make up your own mind.
How extreme is the crime?
I think it’s important to consider why you or society as a whole is upset with a specific creator. It can be clear when a creator’s actions are illegal, but opinions or tweets create hazy territory.
It’s wonderful that we live in such a varied world, but that means everyone has their unique views and opinions. Although I believe freedom of speech is a human right, I frequently encounter views which do not match my own and sometimes make me uncomfortable. While I don’t believe this gives me the right to shame someone else for agreeing with these views, I think there is a line between an unpalatable statement and a harmful one. The problem is, most people will disagree about what is harmful. For example, offensive comedy can be hilarious; children can naively say hateful things. One upside of looking into why a creator has upset people is that you are broadening your own view–in many ways you can’t know what is hurtful until you stand in someone else’s shoes.
Is art a separate entity?
Can an author own their stories? Can an artist dictate what people perceive in their paintings? Should we even consider the creator at all when we consume content? Sometimes a homophobe will produce homophobic art, but that seems to be rare. Maybe because offensive content doesn’t get popular in the first place, but whatever the reason, countless horrible people have produced a myriad of beautiful work that has shaped our society. We can’t pretend Harry Potter didn’t give voice to millions of hurting, underrepresented children or that Picasso didn’t inspire countless modern artists.
Experiencing art is often a personal experience and can become part of someone’s identity. Hogwarts houses are a good example where people consider their house (whether self-decided or picked by the Pottermore quiz) to be part of who they are and how they live their life. Therefore, should an artist’s actions come into consideration at all when enjoying their work?
Postmodernism is a movement that began in the late 20th century that states that once an artist shares their art with the public they cease to own it and are not able to dictate how people perceive it (dubbed ‘Death of the Author’). By this train of thought, our experiences with art is the only thing that should matter. However, if our experiences are tainted by the views and actions of the creator, then that becomes part of how we perceive the art.
The troubled artist?
Are artists more likely to be bigoted? Does personal trauma lead to better art? A study showed that artists who experienced childhood trauma are often more fantasy-prone and have stronger creative experiences which can lead to better art (Thompson & Jaque, 2018). Studies also show that childhood trauma is linked to psychopathology symptoms later in life, like anxiety and depression (Rehan et al., 2019). What these studies DON’T say is that only people with personal trauma can make good art, or that trauma causes someone to be abusive themselves. They just show a correlation.
I plan to cover the mental health of writers more in depth in a later post, but for now it’s just an interesting piece of this puzzle. Mental health affects everyone differently–it’s plausible that anxiety can make it difficult to see value in other people’s opinions and depression can make it difficult to even try. Mental health shouldn’t be an excuse for being a nasty person, but responding to someone’s hate with more hate is never a solution. Sometimes it can be important to consider that someone’s hurtful views might be coming from a place of fear and insecurity.
Who gets your money?
Regardless of your opinions on the above sections, there’s no escaping the fact that in many cases, supporting someone’s work means money in the creator’s pockets. There are exceptions: obviously, creators who have died don’t receive royalties and in a few cases, the creators have either sold their work or their actions result in them being removed from projects. For example, Markus Persson “Notch” created Minecraft (a hugely successful sandbox survival game) and sold it to Microsoft who has subsequently removed all of the in-game references to him after he was publicly racist, sexist and transphobic. In many ways, the damage has been done because Notch received 2.5 billion for Minecraft and will probably continue to tweet hateful things. However, it’s nice to know that at least all future purchases of the game now go to the huge, talented team that currently work on it.
In many ways, the Minecraft example leads to a further question: if a piece of work has multiple creators, is it wrong to stop paying all of them just because of one person’s actions? This isn’t very true for novels, where in many cases it’s just one writer, but films, games, and a lot of music come from teams of creators. To me, it feels a little like a warped version of the trolley problem–buy it and give money to someone you don’t want to support or don’t buy it and hurt the careers of a load of innocent people.
However, remember that the majority of successful creators don’t need your money. For example, paying £7 for the first Harry Potter book means nothing when JK Rowling has already made millions (Very few writers actually make millions. I’m using JK as an example, but this is more true in the film industry). It’s not just buying the actual creations either–memorabilia, the spin-off series, themed craft books, etc. usually all involve money in the original creator’s pockets. Even if you choose to check out a book or film from the library instead, it’s possible that you’re still financially supporting the creator just through showing interest. In many ways, there’s no right answer here.
What can we do?
In the end, it’s your own personal decision to love, not love, buy or not buy. First do your research and then just do what feels right. Don’t financially support something that bothers you, but don’t hate on someone who isn’t bothered by it. Try to think of every issue as if it were a thousand piece puzzle–no one knows the answers if they’re only seeing one piece. Remember that you can always hit up the charity shops or used book stores. You can even support or donate to causes that are negatively affected by creators.
Another response is to think before you use your voice. Support creators whose views you do agree with. Recommend work from people who are doing their best to promote diversity. And please don’t use your voice to be hateful. Disagreeing with someone and voicing your own opinions is very different to tweeting death threats. In the latter, you are only fuelling the problem by turning the creator into a metaphoric martyr. To use JK Rowling as an example again, I’m really saddened that so many people have sent her hateful messages. From my viewpoint, a lot of her hate seems to come from a place of fear which will just be reinforced by the hate messages.
Maybe the biggest issue surrounding the content VS creator problem is that we are often too quick to dismiss it as something unpleasant to think about. We treat human rights like it’s a taboo, ethical debate. Human rights shouldn’t be taboo–we need to discuss these topics and normalise learning about each other. When children point or say hurtful things to people from under-represented groups, we should respond by educating them. As the language we use to talk about diversity is constantly evolving, we should continue to educate ourselves too. It’s okay to not know everything, the problem is when we don’t even try.