Separating a person from his or her work is difficult. We’re inclined to throw out the proverbial baby with the dirty water. When we learn a celebrity is flawed, we tend to dismiss her work, at least temporarily. The other approach, probably more common in this culture, is to deny the celebrity’s flaws.
Ignorance is bliss. Bliss is the state preferred by the masses.
Consider a few examples. Edward Abbey was widely regaled as a thinker, public speaker, and writer. He was among the early philosopher-poets to strongly link social justice and environmental protection. And, rumor has it, he was a slumlord with a sordid history of relations with young women. He married several times, each time to a woman in her twenties or younger. His actions, at least on some occasions, were beyond societal norms — oh, the horrors — and also beyond what many people would consider ethical.
Abbey’s writing is thoughtful, provocative, and timely 27 years after his death. He and Doug Peacock are the only writers who make me want to put down their books … and take a hike.
I love Abbey’s work. I doubt I would’ve loved the man, whose work hinted broadly at misogyny and patriarchy. Unfortunately — or perhaps not — we never met. I cannot know how I would have felt about Abbey the person.
In the wake of his death earlier this year, I read many horrible tales about singer/songwriter David Bowie (née David Robert Jones). Some of the stories are almost certainly accurate. And he was still a superb practitioner of his chosen craft.
Many people continue to vote, knowing they are voting for a successful, serial liar. When we vote, we balance the lies told — and the ones yet to come — with the presumed effectiveness of our candidate of choice. But I doubt anybody is naive enough to expect the full truth from any politician.
Ours is the only species known to lie, and we make up for all the non-human species that cannot utter untruth. James Halperin’s 1999 science fiction novel, Truth Machine, tackles the issue of the lies we all tell by creating a society in which every lie is detected immediately. As you can imagine, society is turned upside-down in a very brief period.
No more asking if this dress makes me look fat. No more false flattery. No more “little white lies” to make people feel better. No more denying the total costs of grid-tied electricity, food at the grocery stores, and water pouring out the municipal taps. Only the cold, naked truth remains.
For better and worse, and perhaps only via willful ignorance, we usually distinguish a man from his work (and a woman, too). If we knew the details of the personal lives of our heroes, I doubt we’d sincerely admire anybody for long.
An obvious exception is treatment of whistleblowers. If few appreciate the message, then even fewer want to believe it. The majority deny the message and castigate the messenger. If the message is too dire — in other words, if it threatens to interfere with monetary gain for the financially wealthy — the messenger is silenced.
As I’ve indicated previously in this space, silencing the messenger does not change the message. But it slows the rate of transmission while allowing positive emotions to the ignorant masses. Such an outcome provides a temporary victory for the majority, with truth as the only cost. The dominant culture and the masses who serve it are only rarely concerned with evidence. Ergo, silencing the messenger is victory, albeit in pyrrhic form.
And who among us doesn’t appreciate a warm campfire on a cold night? Tall tales, true or not, add to the feel-good memories. Internalized warmth thus nicely accompanies the campfire’s heat.
As with most issues, radicalization is a difficult path, discouraged and disparaged by contemporary society. Digging beneath the surface has its rewards. Comfort is rarely one of them.
On a few uncommon occasions, a person becomes indistinguishable from his or her work. Consider, as one example, nutritionist Dr. Gary Null. He’s in the uncomfortable position of being unable to die. He must live forever. The day he dies, no matter his age or general health in the preceding moments, is the day most people will conclude nutrition is irrelevant to health. In other words, Null’s death proves him wrong.
In contrast to Dr. Null, my own death, immediately attributable to abrupt climate change, proves me right. Sadly, I’ll be unable to say, “I told you so.”
I’m not proud of some of my personal actions. Yet I believe my scientific work has great integrity. The discriminating reader will differentiate with ease Guy McPherson the person from Guy McPherson’s analyses, public speaking, and written works.
Guy just referred to himself in the third person. It was weird.