Monday, May 04, 2015

The Tipping Point

I've been thinking a lot lately about public figures, and how pure they need to be in order to earn or keep my support. If you've been reading the past few months, I've been processing a situation involving some of my favorite authors. If you haven't, or need a refresher, read this and then read this.

In light of this situation, I've been considering how closely the words, actions, and viewpoints of an author, actor, official, or athlete need to line up with my own in order for me to consider them a voice of influence in my life. Another more recent example might be Michigan's new head football coach, Jim Harbaugh, who recently said during an interview for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel that football is "the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men, in males." 

By itself, I didn't think much of it when I read it. But then someone with whom I don't agree on much of anything weighed in:
This is where conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh stepped in to defend Harbaugh. (Of course, with Limbaugh, there has to be a liberal villain: It's Gumbel):  
I think this is profound and it's interesting. I'm glad Jim Harbaugh said what he said, and I'm glad that Gumbel reacted to it the way he did. I think this kind of illumination is good. In other words, Gumbel epitomizes the modern day cultural left. He simply epitomizes it, and to him, any notion of toughness in men, and a last bastion of hope, and football being representative and an example of toughness in America, is somehow unacceptable! Would John Wayne be put in jail today? Would John Wayne be ridiculed and mocked? Would they say of John Wayne that he was a poor role model and a bad influence for young American men who are simply trying to feel their way along on campus? That's a bad choice of words. Men who are simply trying to find their way along on campus. If any of you had a doubt that modern day liberalism features among many of its other qualities and objectives, an all-out assault on manliness, you have evidence of the contrary right here. It clearly is.
This caused me to see Harbaugh's original statement in a different light. What was he really advocating for when he was talking about toughness in males? Would he and Limbaugh actually agree regarding what Limbaugh says? And how do I now feel about Harbaugh as a coach or as a person, or does this really change anything? How would I answer a fan of a rival team who'd point to this and say, "Look at how your coach feels about gender norms. You gonna defend your guy?"

These are a few examples of a larger issue I've been turning over for some times now: should one poor statement or act of bad judgment or point on which we disagree disqualify a public figure from my continuing as their "fan?" Am I automatically obligated to defend everything that my favorite musician, author, football player says or does, even if I agree with the person offering the critique?

Some would say yes. Or at least, many seem to feel obligated to take this route. We see this most often in politics and sports, where every flaw in the people I like can be explained away and every flaw on the other side just further proves how terrible they are. Is it truly possible to say, "That famous person said/did a dumb thing, but I still consider them entertaining/inspiring/influential in these other ways?" Are we humans too tribal to be that nuanced? When can/can't one's work as a performer or policymaker be separated from one's shortcomings? What's non-negotiable and what's more easily reconcilable? Or should I just sip some more coffee and chalk all this up to subjectivism?

There have been many times when I've been able to work this out for myself with little trouble. Here are just three quick examples.
  • I fully admit that things got questionable and weird near the end of his life, but I still consider Michael Jackson to be one of the greatest musical artists ever, and I still listen to his music. 
  • I have no doubt to this day that Brady Hoke is a great and personable guy, but I pulled all support for him as coach of my favorite team when he sent a concussed player back on the field during a game. 
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. had a lot of skeletons in his closet, but he still majorly moved the needle for civil rights and should always be credited for what he did in that sense. 
Some use these flaws to discredit these people completely, others can see the good they did despite them.

As I was thinking about all of this the other day, I saw someone suggest that we all have our different tipping points when it comes to people in the public eye. That was probably the phrase I've been looking for. We each have a tipping point when it comes to different celebrities and politicians; different things that we consider non-negotiable, no-turning-back sorts of issues when it comes to continuing to support people from whom we draw learning and inspiration. For people whose work we already don't like, that tipping point comes more quickly. For those we do like, we may be willing to give more understanding and leeway.

Can people still appreciate Bill Cosby's classic stand-up routines or his beloved sitcoms despite the allegations that are piling up around him? Can one still read John Howard Yoder's theological ethics despite what has been revealed regarding his personal ethics? Can people still read some or any of the authors involved in current accusations? Our tipping points might be different for each.

And while not every celebrity may reach that same tipping point, an article I referenced a few weeks ago calls us to admit that every one is problematic in some way:
The fact that your fave is problematic isn’t a big deal — the big deal is if we ignore it. Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech was entitled, privileged and racially insensitive. Tina Fey’s new show is racist, Trevor Noah has made transphobic and sexist and anti-Semitic jokes, Lena Dunham’s feminism is very privileged and largely excludes women of color. They have contributed to systems of injustice that oppress others. These things are all true. 
Patricia Arquette is a dedicated women’s rights activist and a talented actress, Tina Fey is a ground-breaking comedic writer who has opened doors for many women, Trevor Noah is a very talented comedian whose new role as host of The Daily Show is important to the visibility of people of color in the media, Lena Dunham is a very talented writer who has accomplished great things at a young age and has changed the way we view young women in the arts. These things are also true. 
So can we just talk about it? 
It's much simpler for me to just say that yes, Michael Jackson in his later years faced some accusations that may or may not have been true, but most of his musical career was the work of a genius. And yes, I spent my childhood listening to old Bill Cosby tapes and laughing so hard that I cried, but this is also some serious stuff for which he needs to give an account. And yes, I don't think that Jim Harbaugh's ideas about what constitutes "maleness" is complete, but he's a fantastic coach and I'm glad he's back at Michigan.

They're all problematic. I also like things that they've done. Am I really meant to reject them whole cloth unless they line up perfectly with some ideal that only I know about? Should I really turn a blind eye to a public figure's good works because they also had some demons? Can I celebrate the good while also acknowledging the bad, realizing that I'm only observing them from a distance and don't have the complete story anyway?

I haven't fully answered these questions for myself. But perhaps I can evaluate how I've done so in the past in order to begin to figure it out.