On Doing Bad Things, Being a Bad Person, Making a Living, and Having a Voice

The torture report hit the streets today, and John Yoo is teaching in my university, with a named chair.  I have a real problem that we are putting him in front of a classroom, especially a law classroom, no matter whether the course is international criminal law, constitutional law, or even civil procedure. That the law school permanently displays four canvases from the Botero Abu Ghraib series doesn’t make it OK, it just puts in doubt the efficacy of art as moral improvement.

I could be wrong, or inconsistent, about this. In the last three weeks, I’ve assigned my students leadership “cases” by Richard Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral).  I make a point of recognizing that these authors are a pair of notorious anti-Semites and misogynists, that Wagner was adopted as a Nazi poster boy, and make sure they attend to Sachs’ nasty little xenophobic speech at the end of the opera. I also point out that while this is a fairly long assignment, as a freebie they get to spend time with some of the most glorious music of the 19th century and poetry of the 20th.

This morning we learned that MIT has taken down Walter Lewin’s online physics lectures, because he sexually harassed one or more students taking an MITx  course that he is no longer offering.  There’s no suggestion that the lectures contained sexist physics, whatever that would be, or sexist anything else. Over the last few weeks, Bill Cosby has had what appear to be all his gigs pulled, including reruns of a TV show more than 40 years old that no-one ever complained about, because of offstage behavior that is invisible in his paid work. The football news is all about whether players whose on-field performance is completely unsexist  and sober should lose employment because they hit their lady friends or drive drunk.  I’m writing this on a computer made possible by the invention of William Shockley, who was just awful both personally and politically, but his transistor works fine both for harmless bloggers and ISIS recruiters. My college organic chemistry professor invented napalm that helped win World War II, and did so with that end in mind, but he took a lot of heat when it was used in Vietnam.

Two issues are on my mind.  The first is the continuum (if it is one) from

I. being an evil person in general, both personally and in one’s work, through
II. being a bad person who did some or a lot of good work, and
IIIa. being a person of average morality and conduct who did one or a few bad things, on the job, to
IIIb. being a person of average morality and conduct who did one or a few bad things in private life.

Anyone who has taken the implicit associations survey on line has to be careful about mixing up II with III. If the operational definition of “being a racist or a sexist” (traits) is having blurted out something racist or sexist , the categories thus defined are vacuous because they embrace everyone, and it’s a counsel of despair because it excludes learning.  We don’t take away licenses for a single speeding ticket, and shouldn’t.  I think, in general, well-meaning people are too quick with atom-bomb sanctions, hating the sinner instead of the sin, for III.  Fear of having my career wrecked for a careless moment in class may raise my expected cost of saying the wrong thing very high, but (i) I don’t have careless moments because of computational errors (ii) hanging pickpockets in public didn’t prevent pockets being picked at the hangings (iii) if the only place to dance is the edge of a cliff, I’m going to just sit down. Making people afraid usually makes their behavior worse, not better.

Category I is pretty simple; despicable people who do and say hateful things might be studied in a social pathology lab or as cautionary examples, but we shouldn’t learn from them in the usual way, or hire them.  So my second issue is with category II.

The easiest case would seem to be scientists; there’s simply no way not to use a finding once it’s revealed, so we have to stand on the shoulders of the occasional moral midget like Shockley and act out despising him on another stage.  For all I know, Thomas Bayes was someone whose hand I wouldn’t shake, but I can’t boycott a theorem and the result is itself completely amoral.  It’s a little harder for a teacher, but if there’s good physics learning on tap in Lewin’s online content, and even if there’s a sexist joke in them somewhere (that could be edited out or annotated), I think MIT made the wrong move here.

One of Nathan Pusey’s good moments was his defense of a Harvard physicist from the McCarthite hyaenas on grounds that he wasn’t teaching subversive science and his personal politics were irrelevant to his job.  Maybe they can take away Lewin’s emeritus office, or make him feel unwelcome in the senior common room (depending on how the case II/case III analysis comes out).  No-one at MIT would think about rewinding all their electronics courses to pre-transistor days.

Charles Murray presents himself as a scientist, but social science is a lot mooshier than physics and it’s reasonable to look at (for example) racist-comforting findings with an eye to biases the author may have revealed in private or other professional life.  We have to be careful, of course, not to ignore real facts merely because we don’t like them, or we are as bad as the climate-denier fossil fuel shills.

Entertainers and artists are the hard cases, because the whole personality of the artist is part of the work (not all of it). Football players are explicitly marketed as role models, and the game as building and expressing admirable character traits.  I have no problem with people who simply can’t listen to Wagner’s music because they can’t get their associations with him out of their mind; no-one has a right to an audience. While Meistersinger is overall a profoundly humane work with many priceless political and artistic insights (Parsifal, not so much) , it has some really icky moments. The whole plot, after all, is set in motion when Pogner puts his daughter up as a prize in a singing contest to prove how cultured he and his friends are.

Even in the arts, though, it’s asking a lot to boycott Wagner, or Cosby, because their creative work is so much bigger than their personal oeuvre: every composer of the twentieth century and every comedian of the last four decades is channelling them, respectively, so good luck with censoring them out of your life. Wagner was a jerk, but he was also a genius.  These cases are not that different from the scientists’.

Malefactors in category II deserve some sort of sanction, including not having them to dinner, publicly deploring their behavior, and for the worst cases like Ezra Pound’s treasonous collaboration or beating your child, jail time.  But if the bad behavior isn’t part of their work, I’m thinking a line should be drawn.  If you think no-one will watch Cosby now, of course you take him off the air; if the football player’s endorsements are tied to his personal character, take him out of your ads.  If the prof is hitting on students or humiliating them in class or not giving women author credit or teaching evil stuff, he should be fired (yes, even tenured faculty can be fired).  But if he’s going to KKK meetings on the weekend and not bringing it to work, I think he keeps his job if not his friends.

On the consumer end, I think being your best self means trying to draw that line even against your first instinct, and attend to the work on its own terms, while making appropriate judgments on the character of the author. What my students appear to be willing to do.

Oh yeah, John Yoo: he got his job with a resume that notably included professional behavior as a lawyer that makes him, in my eyes, a war criminal.  It’s a law school. If he can’t be fired, I think he gets a terminal assignment with no duties, no authority, and no interaction with students or colleagues, looking out his window alone at a tree with a squirrel in it. We’ve paid lots of severance pay to people whose only offense was losing football games.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.