By Nancy O Meyer Phd 3/26/19
I have a question, and I can’t find an answer. I don’t really think there is an answer. I think this is one place where we have to get comfortable in the squidgy grey areas of opinions. At what point do we erase the good things done by someone due to their crimes (legal and/or cultural)? These questions are being asked of and by a whole gamut of people. Every time I talk about Freud in class, or any other old white guy (yes, he was actually Jewish, but he identified as European, A.K.A. white) from the ivory towers of academe, I have to give a caveat: “he was not a great guy, especially if we look at him through the current lens of greater sensitivity to gender, class, cultural background, etc., and he was addicted to cocaine and likely got all of patients addicted as well. BUT, he also had really interesting things to say that were revolutionary at the time. Whether we like it or not, we stand on his shoulders.” Freud is not someone I want to hold up and say “emulate this!” BUT, he had insight, and even though other voices were silenced in favor of his, can we simply ignore what he did? This may be too easy, it has been nearly a century since Freud was writing and working, the wounds aren’t bleeding anymore. But, do Michael Jackson’s crimes erase his innovation?
The difficult answer is, no. We can’t simply walk away and say he sucked. We must acknowledge the shadow, help any victims and be honest about the achievements. This is really hard, especially when the shadow is so incredibly deep–as in the case of Bill Cosby too. We cannot erase what he did, either good or bad. We cannot go back in time and change anything. At the same time that Cosby was destroying lives, he was helping the civil rights movement by breaking down barriers for entertainers of color. How do we navigate that? History is full of people, men and women who held deep shadows and did atrocious things, but also created and paved paths for all of us. We cannot pretend the new ideas, new paths, or new freedoms suddenly appeared, as if by magic. We also cannot pretend these people were saints, or even decent in some cases. We cannot ignore their victims and say, ‘wow, that’s a bummer, but look what amazing things they did!’
All of my heroes have fallen from grace in some way. Jung was kind of racist. Cosby was a rapist. That stings. A lot. A lot of people are being seen differently now. They weren’t all rapists, sometimes they were womanizers or bad mothers or fathers (John Lennon comes to mind). We look at them and judge them. Where is the line between revolting, sucky, and not that big of deal? That line shifts through time, and does so dramatically. 50 years ago it was ok to hit your wife, beat up some one who was queer, and kick your dog. In some cultural contexts today those things are still acceptable. Perhaps the answer is a sort of cultural jail. We ignore them for years, perhaps even decades, until the victims have healed or passed away. Even then, though, when we can look our heroes in the eyes again (so to speak), we must not forget our grievances. Rather, we must learn from their mistakes as much as we learn from their triumphs. We have to be honest about our history, especially when it hurts because that’s where we have the most to learn.