There’s no such thing as a moral squirrel. They’re too focused on gathering nuts for winter to worry about stuff like that.
Humans, on the other hand, are obsessed with morality. With right vs. wrong.
Right: Are people kind and generous to one another?
Wrong: Are people only out for themselves, no different from squirrels?
Virtually all heroes in stories—I’m talking mainstream, commercial entertainment here—are angels. An iron moral compass guides them as they mete out justice against very obviously bad guys to restore the karmic balance of the universe. The righteous Harry Potter defeats agent of chaos Voldemort, Iron Man avenges crimes against the innocent, and so on. There are almost no blockbuster stories where evil prevails.
We love rooting for angels, because we believe that right is the proper future course for human evolution. Right is community and harmony. Wrong is chaos and selfishness, and belongs to the miserable past and all its anti-heroes.
The few anti-hero characters that exist are really just flawed angels who, despite their actions, still can discern right from wrong. In Breaking Bad, upstanding everydad Walter White is sabotaged by his own pride; in Black Panther, we understand Killmonger’s rage, but not his violence. True anti-heroes—those American Psychos and Natural Born Killers—have no ethics whatsoever and are therefore not recognizably human.
In real life, we increasingly expect artists to behave like the fictitious heroes they create. During interviews, I’ve been asked more and more how much of my stories are autofiction, i.e. veiled autobiography. Cancel culture (or consequence culture, as LeVar Burton recently called it) is an effort to hold people accountable for harmful actions—both artistic and personal—against the common good. In the manuscripts I read for my and my wife’s imprint Joy Revolution, it’s not just the characters that have a strong social justice bent to them—it’s also the authors themselves.
And just as artists are regarded as heroes, they’re expected to behave like angels, too.
But what do you do when they turn out to be anything but angels?
When I heard that the book And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss (whose work I love) was being un-published, I felt relief. In it, a racist depiction of a “Chinese man who eats with sticks” pops up out of nowhere, ruining an otherwise madcap romp. Pulling this title felt right to me. Dr. Seuss is an unsatisfying hero—although he compensated for his early racist work by drawing anti-racist political cartoons, he also was for Japanese internment during World War II. The latter feels like wartime hysteria talking; the former feels more like core wisdom. What’s interesting is, I find myself wanting to believe he was essentially on the side of right, because so many of his other books (The Lorax, The Butter Battle Book) are so clearly generous and humanistic.
J.K. Rowling is tougher to deal with, given her repulsively transphobic behavior. In the end, however, we watch Harry Potter movies as a family. I think we manage this because her awful politics are absent from the actual work itself. Her sphere of authorship has a clear boundary separating work and artist. She’s not an angel, but Harry still is.
Michael Jackson, as famous as he was for his alleged pedophilia, left no trace of it in his music. His work remains, as New York Times culture writer Wesley Morris put it, inseparable at an “atomic level”: so many fragments of his signature riffs and style are embedded in modern pop music that it is effectively impossible to cancel him. It’s easy (and fun) to appreciate Michael Jackson’s genius-level artistry; it’s just as easy to avoid—or even be ignorant of—his accused crimes against minors.
Things aren’t always this clear-cut, though.
Louis CK, who I used to worship, so often parodied lewd behavior on stage that all of it became tainted when he turned out to be a sexual predator. His wrongness bled from his persona into his work, making the sphere of authorship almost indistinguishable from the man himself. The Coen brothers, who I also once adored, broke my heart when they defended their heavily white casting policy with that racist old dictum that non-whites should only be cast for specific reasons. Their philosophy meant that Fargo saw Mark Yanagita’s Asian-ness in and of itself as a pathetic visual punchline. I could no longer consume the Coens’ work without being bullied by their politics. In my mind I had to cancel both Louis and the Coens—something I really hadn’t wanted to do.The optimist in me sees a pendulum swing toward a better, finer sense of justice. Being right comes easily once you see humanity as a single species.
I realize now that this is the way I live—sifting through media like a civilian picking my way through a crowd of spies, not knowing who will turn out to be a good guy or bad guy.
In a perfect world, I’d know nothing about the artist. I wouldn’t be able to hero-worship them, much less expect them to be angelic. I would only know the work, and on the internet people would also only talk about the work and the work alone. And since virtually all stories feature angelic heroes, I’d be able to cheer loud as you please, blissfully unaware of the artist’s proclivities or intents.
But life is much messier than that. We seem to know everything now. That said, there is no blanket one-size-fits-all cancel culture response to art. Each piece must be weighed and sniffed individually, and yes, the artists themselves shall be evaluated, whether we want to or not. It’s a critical chore that we do now, that’s required of us to do, if we’re to continue further defining and refining our essential notions of right and wrong.
The pessimist in me sees this trend as anathema to artistic freedom, leading to nothing but vapid polemics that leave the human imagination impoverished.
But the optimist in me sees a pendulum swing toward a better, finer sense of justice. Being right comes easily once you see humanity as a single species. Maybe these times are our first clumsy efforts to be more like the angels we depict in our art. Maybe we’ll get better at it as we ourselves become better people.
But becoming better people doesn’t happen if we don’t hold ourselves to our own standards, work by work, artist by artist.