Dissecting people from actions

In a waiting room the other day, I read a short article about Michael Jackson. Its bottom line was: stop listening to his music, so revenue will stop flowing into his estate.

My thoughts around all of this are not linear. Hang on.

I guess the first question to answer is: are the two things connected? Without question, Michael Jackson made an enormous impact on pop music. Pop as it exists now doesn’t exist without his music. Without question, Michael Jackson sexually assaulted young boys. These two things exist. Does one affect the other? Should one affect the other?

For some people, the answer is no. He has great music (or doesn’t) and his actions outside of creating and performing music have no relevance.

For some people, the answer is yes. It’s not OK to cause irreparable harm to people and have your life be unaffected.

Which moves into: is getting caught the only problem?

Obviously, for victims of all crimes everywhere, the problem is being a victim. But we very much have embedded in our culture that it’s only a problem if you get caught, from speeding to drunk driving to cheating (on tests, on spouses, on taxes) to stealing to more violent crimes.

Think about how our systems are set up. They all are based on avoiding punishment or gaining reward (or both) and are not at all based on behaving ethically. Ends justify means.

When a kid does well on something and asks, “What do I get?” in return, that’s evidence of lack of internal motivation. Instead of doing it to do it, instead of being proud of his/her work and having that as reward, an external something is required.

(I think wanting to share one’s success with others is different than receiving a reward, though you could argue otherwise.)

When a kid is consoled for getting a shot or dental work with food or toys, they’re learning that when they do something they don’t want to do, they get rewarded for it…which eventually turns into not doing it unless there’s a reward.

(I don’t think that these couple of examples are sufficient to breed that mindset. They’re examples, not end-all-be-all. But all of this stuff is drip by drip, not a large sudden shift.)

I’ve meandered from the last question I asked, but we need to build more “because it’s the right thing to do” into our culture.

Back to Michael (who is just the example I’m holding up—there are countless parallel examples).

Are the actions a problem if the victims were paid a settlement? Does money fix the problem? Can we do terrible things to people as long as we’re able to pay them off later?

(I would argue that it’s nice, and sometimes it’s all there is to offer, but no amount of money can erase trauma or how the trauma informs every step of life after it. Clearly if money eliminated the effects of trauma, MJ wouldn’t have been a perpetrator to begin with.)

If a no-name black man was accused of the same crimes, he wouldn’t have been acquitted (as Jackson was a few years before his death). Is it OK to do these things as long as we’re famous enough?

Who is held to these standards? I will lose my job on an accusation. The more famous or rich (or both) among us frequently don’t lose their jobs on verdicts.

And my last question: does it matter if the children are boys or girls? My argument is yes, that boys are still more highly valued and homosexuality is more rigorously looked down upon. (And, for the most zealous among us, events like these “prove” that homosexuals are pedophiles.)

Did you know there were girls molested in the church scandal? We only heard about the boys.

I am inclined to believe that it would not have been nearly as scandalous if Michael had been with girls instead of boys.

Where does this all lead? A big mess.

I don’t think people should lose their jobs for consensual recreational activity that doesn’t impact their jobs, whether it’s legal or not. In other words, go get high, but don’t come to work high or hung over. Go to a crazy sex party and return to doing what you do. (But don’t actively work to vilify that which you consensually participate in.)

I don’t think people should lose their jobs over marriage infidelity unless their job is somehow tied to it. A marriage therapist comes to mind as an example, but in that case, the issue is job ethics, not the infidelity. I can’t think of an example where their job would be tied to it but in no other way cross ethical lines.

Anyway, infidelity is complicated. As Dan Savage likes to say, “The victim of the infidelity is not always the victim of the marriage.” Don’t judge. The point is: I don’t think that’s a reason to lose your job. Your personal life is going to be a mess, but work should still be work. (I believe that of all jobs.)


Having sex (or any sexual relationship or encounter) with children is illegal, unethical, and causes trauma.

So the question is: should you lose your job for it? Ultimately, that’s what the question about Michael Jackson is asking. And about any pop icon in a similar situation, where we’re asked to avoid their art. Should they lose their job for this?

The more I think about it, the more I think the answer should be the same regardless of one’s creative capacity or level of fame. If child molestation would cause an accountant to lose his job, why shouldn’t it cause a singer to do the same? Or if it would cause someone in a Broadway chorus to lose his job, why not a more established singer?

That said, people who have any history of mistreating children shouldn’t have jobs that include working with children. Teaching, doctors, nurses, any type of camp or care facility, therapy, etc., etc.

But. (Again.)

I grew up on Michael Jackson’s music. Thriller was the first album I owned. I have several CDs of his music.

With the revelation of information, does his music suddenly not become good?

Of course not.

I have a lot of good memories attached to a lot of his songs. I will still sing along with them despite myself.

So then in some ways the question becomes one of money. Is it OK to play CDs I already have but not buy new ones? Should I avoid his music on Spotify (or other pay-per-play streaming services)?

A few months ago, I was at an event raising awareness and money to fight against child abuse. The DJ played two Michael Jackson songs. That’s poor taste.

So. To be thoughtful is complicated, and I have compassion for people who can’t hold on to all the contradictions at once.

On the other hand, we are communicating what we (as individuals and as a greater whole) are willing to accept. And I think we need to stop accepting abhorrent behavior from famous people just because they’re famous, or just because we like their music or their movies or their humor. (There is always a line of “know better do better” with regards to certain beliefs and actions. I don’t think sex with kids is on that list. Some things require “do better” out of the gate.)

And of course all of this drills down to: it’s critical to protect children from trauma to the extent possible. Not from scraping knees or breaking arms or getting in an argument with their friend or not getting into the school play. But trauma. Because we tend to give what we’ve received, and we don’t have the structures (access physically, socially, financially, time-wise) in place to give help to all of the people who need it. And the help that we have is just that—help. It’s not a reset button.

Long and windy. What do you think?

0 thoughts on “Dissecting people from actions”

  1. I play regularly in the orchestra for a small non-profit opera company based in Newark NJ. The major part of their charter is to encourage and promote black composers, Operas about Black history and such. We are also performing the Wagner’s Ring Cycle; one opera each year. Three down, one to go. Wagner was a legendary anti-Semite. I’m pretty sure the blacks ranked below the jews in his book. I believe that the performances by this organization says two things (at least): 1st: In spite of Wagner being a major asshole, he wrote great music. 2nd: F-you Wagner, listen to us perform the shit out of this.

    I think that art in some of its forms ( a recording, a painting, a book, a piece of sheet music, choreography), becomes separate from the artist. Much of Bach’s music was church music. I don’t believe in god, but that music speaks to me. If we take that down a notch or two to The King of Pop, those recordings of his that we still listen to are the collaboration of many people. Jackson didn’t write “Thriller” and many other of the songs he performed. Those people lose much more than the Jackson estate if we don’t listen. Were Michael alive, it ‘might’ make since to boycott his music. But now, we may be hurting the living. Bill Cosby won’t notice if the “The Cosby Show” sends him residuals or not. But perhaps Malcolm Jamal Warner and the other co-stars could use the money.

    Almost, but not quite as ramble-ly as Heat’s post.


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