When I applied to college I didn’t give much thought to a given school’s athletic status, though I did love college sports, football in particular. For that matter I didn’t give much thought to a school’s academic status, either. Mainly because I was a 17-year-old average student and knew precisely nothing, but also because my admissions standards began and ended with: could I get in?
That changed somewhat when I was accepted, much to my surprise, at the University of Southern California, and I began to get excited at the prospect of football games. Still, I didn’t realise what it really meant to go to a “football school” until I went to my first Trojan game at the L.A. Coliseum. I don’t recall the specifics, but I do remember the buzz of the whole experience. From walking to the game with the throng of other students, alumni, and fans, to the beautiful rendition of our National Anthem by the USC marching band, to the game itself. It was fantastic to the point of sublimity, and I remember calling my parents afterwards and thanking them for giving me the opportunity (with many, many, many loans) to attend a college that had a powerhouse football program.
Since then I have attended many USC games, both in Los Angeles and away from it, and the feeling is still largely the same. There is an electricity at a college sporting event not present at a professional game. I feel an almost spiritual connection to USC football in particular. It’s not the games but everything the games symbolise: the freedom of being away from home for the first time, lifelong friends (including the woman who became my wife and the mother of my daughter), late-night discussions of the Big Three (religion, sex, politics), the classes I took, the pain of leaving that bubble after graduation. The memories, as they say, are forever. I would guess most alumni of any college have similar experiences whether or not they attended a football school.
Except sometimes the memories become painful. When O.J. Simpson was accused of the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, one of the unintended (and undeniably petty) consequences was the awkwardness many USC alumni felt. There are any number of USC football legends to choose from, but perhaps no other player represented USC football more than O.J. The murders and subsequent acquittal consumed Simpson’s individual accomplishments both at and away from USC, and in the process made, for me at least, his football highlights and acting roles unwatchable. At a macro level I can still watch and attend USC games, but I am unable to separate Simpson’s greatness on the field with his depravity off it.
A similar scenario has played out with Michael Jackson. How many of us can listen to his music anymore? The countless hours we have enjoyed grooving to his tunes, watching his videos, admiring his talent—what are those experiences compared to the lives ruined at Neverland? And what of those who believe Simpson and Jackson are innocent? What do they feel when they see old clips of Simpson scoring touchdowns? When they hear Jackson belting out “Off the Wall”? It’s complicated enough for those of us who think our heroes are guilty. For what it’s worth I cannot listen to Jackson anymore. Perhaps it’s because I have a daughter. Perhaps I draw the line of forgivability (and it’s more complicated than that) at crimes against children or other innocent beings. Whatever the case, I can’t separate the art from the artist.
All this makes the controversy surrounding J.K. Rowling and her comments about transgender people that much more bewildering. And really, it’s not what she said so much as the reaction to it—that there were people, apparently many of them, who will have nothing to do with the Potter universe anymore because of what she said. Disagreeing with her is fine, maybe even the correct reaction in this case. But a total boycott of her work? As much as it might make us uncomfortable, our favourite artists and writers and thinkers and actors and professional athletes and musicians and filmmakers are not perfect. They will say things we do not agree with, perhaps often. They will do things to their spouses and lovers and complete strangers that, if they were done to us, we would never accept. And when they do these things they will be amplified, because due to their celebrity status they cannot escape them. So when someone like Rowling posts on her Twitter feed, as a reaction to a woman losing her job because of using “offensive and exclusionary” language on Twitter, the following
Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?
it means that 14.6 million people will see it, digest it, and invariably judge it. And a noisy but usually minority segment will claim something Rowling never says or even implies: that transgenderism is a hoax, that she is anti-transgender, that she is promoting hatred and bigotry. It is of course possible Rowling believes all of those things, some of them, or none of them. Sure, you can read between the lines and conclude whatever you like. The question then becomes, so what? So Rowling is out of step with modern progressivism. She tells us Dumbledore is gay after the series has concluded, when if she really wanted to make a statement she would have revealed that in the books themselves. When a black actress was cast to play Hermione Granger in the first production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Rowling, in response to that misguided criticism, claimed that she never said Hermione was white—even though she is described, several times, as having “bushy hair and bucked teeth.” Oh, J.K. Please stick to fiction. You do it so much better than social activism.
As a straight white man it’s easy for me to say “lighten up” to those people wounded by Rowling’s perceived slights at the transgender community. To those people I encourage you not to change your beliefs about J.K. Rowling the person but instead ask yourself if what she said is worth depriving yourself of something as wonderful (despite its flaws) as the Harry Potter books. Unlike O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson and Harvey Weinstein, J.K. Rowling has committed no crime. Is it necessary to commit a crime to be boycotted or judged harshly? Of course not. But if we are to look up to people greater than we are, if we are to aspire to emulate them and carve out our own sphere of greatness, then we must stop holding them to unrealistic expectations. Our heroes aren’t perfect, nor should they be. (Look into the personal lives of, say, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. at your own peril.) Of course if you feel so strongly that Rowling the person has ruined your opinion of Rowling the artist, then by all means express those feelings—but not at the expense of others who do not see the world the way you do.
It is true, for better or worse, that what a person like J.K. Rowling says carries disproportionate clout. So too does a person like the president of the United States, in or out of office. For reasons different than those on the right I think President Obama did a mostly poor job, but there are many things I admire about him as a human being. (I would love to sit down with him and discuss literature, for one thing.) But his comments on “woke” culture and the ugly side of “social media activism” were spot on.
This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws…I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.’ That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.
When you’re Barrack Obama and Ann Coulter and Fox and Friends agree with what you say, it’s safe to say you’re in for your fair share of criticism, deserved or not. It’s probably asking too much to believe that Obama was expressing his own humility and quiet recognition of his failures as president. But it’s not asking too much to heed what he says.
This brings us back to J.K. Rowling and our flawed heroes. How much rope do we allow them? At what point do their thoughts and actions become forgivable? Do we hold them accountable for something they said or believed when they were 14? If J.K. Rowling or another celebrity believes that we are what we are when we are born, it becomes problematic only when there are people in power who want to codify such beliefs—people, for example, who want to ban gay marriage. Having a conversation with someone whose belief system is different than yours can be, to put it mildly, difficult, but it’s important to remember there is a substantial difference between believing in something and wanting to make it the law of the land.
There is an artist (or philosopher or activist, et al), and there is their work. Assuming there is no criminality involved, that it’s only a person’s personal failings we have quibbles with—especially if we love their work—then separating the art from the artist is critical. To repeat what Obama said: “People who do really good stuff have flaws.” If we were to eliminate from our orbits those people who aren’t perfect or even close, the rooms would be empty. As for artists in particular, if ever there was a perfect representation of an imperfect collection of people, it’s them. Or as Rick from Casablanca might say, an artist is just like any other person, only more so.