Consider the Baldwin.
So, Alec Baldwin – a wonderful actor, a man with a deeply charismatic personality, impeccable comic timing and, apparently, some non-trivial anger management issues – has landed himself in hot water. He’s been rightly and thoroughly taken to town for anti-gay hate speech. And has now had to withdraw himself – he claims – from public life in a big defense interview at Vulture.
His being taken to town has proven difficult to Certain Parties of the Left who have found it hard to take Baldwin, a card-carrying Democrat and liberal (by US standards), to town for saying things like:
“George Stark, you lying little bitch. I am gonna fuck you up … I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch, George Stark. @MailOnline … My wife and I attend a funeral to pay our respects to an old friend, and some toxic Brit writes this fucking trash … If put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck … you … up.”
That’s a problem for the left. And the other people who like hearing Alec Baldwin say things like:
God, I love that. “What am I, a farmer?” Ha! I also love Alec Baldwin’s big, dramatic performances. Who can forget The Big Speech in Glengarry Glen Ross? Holy star power, Batman! Remember that? And then remember how he said homophobic assholery like “cocksucking fag” to a bunch of scumbag paparazzi from TMZ (which I hate, so I’m not going to link it)? Yeah, that was awful. And bigoted! And it’s like there doesn’t even have to be a tension between acknowledging that the guy did good things professionally and bad things personally. And yet there’s a special kind of apologetics going on for Baldwin in which the left has problems entirely embracing the criticism of Baldwin.
A few things need to be noted. First off, Baldwin is threatening violence and using hate speech-language. The photographers and “journalists” here are doing stuff which in my book clearly counts as harassment and invasion of privacy, and in quite a few of my favourite countries, this would be illegal. So I get that he’s angry. I do. There’s quite simply nothing to defend about the awful behaviour of the waste-of-space people he has these confrontations with. But while there may be more than a little bit of what Louis CK has so admirably described in this part of his schtick …
… there’s still something really uncomfortable about the rush to forgive someone who’s on Team Left for things that are unacceptable. He’s threatening violence, which we should universally shun, and he’s using hate speech. Those should be non-starters. And the fact that Baldwin actively supports gay rights helps, but doesn’t amend the harm of hate speech, to use a term borrowed from the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron. Especially when used by a powerful and influential person. These terms are a kind of poison which seep into the groundwater of our discourse, and they need to be inexcusable in a certain sense.
And yet, and yet. While the situation does not condone the use of hate speech, there is something interesting in Baldwin’s defence which opens up some really important continuations of the debate.
I’m talking about the way in which this gets continually attached to Baldwin’s identity.
A string of really successful blog posts by Andrew Sullivan and Ta Nehisi Coates also do this move. Sullivan says: “Just as Mel Gibson revealed his true feelings about Jews in his drunken rant, so Baldwin keeps revealing his own anti-gay bigotry. These outbursts reveal who he actually is.”
Ta Nehisi Coates is closer to the mark, I think, but also misses a crucial point:
This is bigotry. And it is not complicated by the fact that Baldwin supports marriage equality. One need not believe that LGBTQ human beings are equal to support their right to marry, any more than one needed to be an anti-racist to support abolition, or an anti-sexist to support women’s suffrage.
This is all true. But we need to bring a whole different level of nuance and understanding to these kinds of situations, even when we hate and oppose the people who are in trouble.
I think the person who has gotten the furthest into thinking about this issue is Wes Alwan.
These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it. That they might associate it with weakness and submission on the one hand, and on the other with the strength and courage required to face discrimination and disapproval. That they might be personally repelled by homosexuality yet be ashamed of that feeling, and meanwhile an ardent supporter of gay rights. They might have all of these feelings, incidentally, while themselves being gay. These sorts of mixed emotions – not merely about homosexuality, but about everything – are in fact the psychological norm. Our impulses are often at war with each other and with our considered beliefs: we do not have shiny, neatly-structured spirits in which our rational and irrational natures happily collaborate.
This is exactly right. And that’s why precisely we need to move away from the idea that people are bigots. I think that both Coates and Sullivan see this criticism now, because they have walked back some of their criticisms (Sullivan somewhat dubiously, I think. He now appears to be denying he ever implied that Baldwin is a homophobic bigot when that was, in fact, right in the title of his posts: “Alec Baldwin Is A Homophobic Bigot”.)
Obviously, some people are bigots. For some people, bigotry really is a global identity, suffusing their perceptual landscape, shaping the world in which they breathe, the ideas they cultivate and live by. For, say, Ku Klux Klan ideologues; for deeply homophobic, old preachers; for nazi party members, for islamophobic racists who think of every political event in terms of Muslims coming to take over Western civilization: these are all structured, unreformed bigots. People who will most likely never change. (Except that some of them will. We hear of road to Damascus-moments all the time.)
But most people with bigoted ideas – in most developed countries, I would say a clear supermajority – are just people with conflicted and unreflective ideologies. People with not enough knowledge about the gays, the Muslims, the Romani, the Jews. People who have not had to face up to the hard, lived realities of The Other. Who have not had to collapse the wave function of his conflicting ideas into a single one.
So we need to move away from bigotry as a total identity and instead move towards addressing bigoted actions, racist words, unconscious discriminations against women, the word “faggot” shouted in anger.
We can start by thinking this: you don’t suddenly “reveal your true self” when you shout something in anger. You reveal what you are like when you are angry. I have shouted homophobic slurs in anger, and I have been momentarily squicked out by the idea of gay sex and said inappropriate things about that as much as the next white, heterosexual, privileged, middle class asshole. I’m not there anymore. In a sense, I was never there. I was one of those conflicted people who had to face up to the conflicts in him.
Baldwin is, apparently, starting to address some of these issues, according to what he says in the Vulture piece. And I believe him, as I believe in the fact that he campaigns for LGBT rights. What comes across in an unflattering way is the pettiness of his character in interpersonal and professional relations. I’m a little disappointed that the warm, humanist intellect that I saw behind the heartless overachiever Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock is not the unconflicted mind I hoped he was. But the point is that I have no right to be. He is what he is. I can’t quite condemn him for it, and I have no right to expect things of him. In this, his indictment of celebrity culture seems to be spot-on. As does Alwan’s finishing note on the idea that the obsession with celebrities is “tragic”. That’s a well-chosen word. It’s a tragedy for the people involved, and it is degrading to the culture that it takes part in.
And it is very much degrading to the quality of the dialogue on cultural politics. Eventually we should get to a point where these things stop being entirely about the character of the people who do them, and start being about the structural causes that move them to do wrong actions.
And at the very least we should move beyond talking about who people are. Best said by the video blogger Jay Smooth, so let’s end on this constructive note.