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intersectionality, quality, shame

[Content note: internet social justice, discussion of rape.]

Been reading authors who pose a difficult question: how should we read talented people with serious moral or political failings? To catalogue them, Caitlin Moran was seen to be dismissive about black feminism; AA Gill kills sapient animals and insults ace women for fun; Malcolm X was (at one point) a violent pimp and burglar; and Rousseau abandoned his five children to their probable deaths and goes on about his superior virtue all the time.

(The dilemma is starker in the cases of private bigot Larkin, oblivious Nazi Heidegger, serial rapist Koestler, and straight-up serial killer Kaczynski, all of whom I’ve read with admiration and interest.)

The short answer’s that we totally can admire bad people's art or thoughts, and for a number of reasons: because it’s wrong to confuse the quality of a point with the status of the person who raised it; because we can separate our perception of something from our approval of it (we’re not so easily programmed by nasty artefacts!)*; because denying value to things of value does no-one any good; but most of all because talent is simply, often, sadly, independent of biography.** (Elsewhere I argue that the right move's to not pay for the work of bastards, and to tag them as what they are.)

In truisms: 'If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.' To attempt to understand is not to pardon, but to ignore is.


Against this uneasy pluralism, an unargued doctrine is doing the rounds:
'A person’s politics form a whole; if any part is unacceptable, then their whole politics are.' Or, even stronger: 'A person forms a moral whole; if someone does something questionable then they / everything associated with them is to be wholly rejected.'

Call this latter version Tumblr holism. We can reconstruct an argument for this, given ambient attitudes often displayed***:

  1. A person’s politics are rooted in their morals or psychology. ("The political is personal")
  2. If any part of their politics is bad, then their morals or their psychology is bad.
  3. For moral hygiene or for social deterrent, shun bad people.
    (because e.g. "One must be intolerant of intolerance.")
  4. So shun people with bad politics. (2+3)

  5. 'The personal is political'. Noncriminal private acts can be matters for public policy.
  6. So noncriminal private acts fall under the shun radius of premise 4. (4+5)
  7. So shun anyone who does wrong in their personal life. (4+6)

  8. Who a person chooses to be friends with reflects their politics. (see 5)
  9. So shun anyone who is friends with bad people. (4+8)

  10. A person's work necessarily reflects on their politics.
  11. So shun the work of anyone who does wrong. (4+10)

'The white-hot rage that dwells in compassion'. There’s a lot going on and going wrong here, even aside from only premise 1 and 5 being probably true. (And then not straightforwardly.) Mostly it strikes me as elevating a psychological defect – the ‘halo effect’, by which we automatically and illicitly transfer evaluations about a part of a thing to the whole – to the status of a moral imperative. And the holist throws away some of our most remarkable talents: the capacity to admire without agreeing, to admire work while condemning the worker, to distinguish use from mention, and saying from doing.

(I’m not making any big points about how taking things so personally makes a kind of good thought impossible, yet. And actually I agree you can't understand much that's wrong with society without grasping why some members of it are compelled to take horrible things personally, AKA 'identity politics'. Yet that view does not entail the Tumblrite quest for political purity.)

Some form of premise (5) is important if we're to disallow the old behind-closed-doors abuse: private vices can be indicative of public vices. But it would only unconditionally apply to more consistent agents than us: we are inconsistent beasties strange even to ourselves. 'The personal is political' says, 'Everything is connected'.

But not everything is connected, inside humans. Is Frege's anti-semitism 'connected' to his predicate logic? Is Hume's abolitionism connected to his racism? Only in the most general near-empty sense, that the views were endorsed at various points by the same mind. Be suspicious of any pat psychoanalytic unification of anyone, because they barely knew their own ideology from their elbow in life; no psychoanalyst could grasp the entirety of them. (Does this put too much emphasis on how bastards consider themselves? "Intention isn't magic", you say? No, I should think it's not. But the principle of charity can be.)

The key line is of course premise (3). It is an old, old urge, shared by people of all politics (except bloody centrists). Here it comes out as 'One must be intolerant of intolerance.' Well so I try to be, but nothing in that decree requires us to delude ourselves that our enemies are devoid of all virtue. But if you’re puritanical – believe that your politics are not only righteous, but the only way of resisting social evils – then a boycott of those who disagree with you seems to follow. But at our own expense too: it’s easy to see how this behaviour insulates us from real disconfirming evidence, and leads to the exaggeration of, well, everything.****

One-strike systems don’t serve justice because they neglect the omnipresent risk of our just cocking up. What's more, they could actually suppress potential reform – if a bastard is condemned from the start, he has no reason to change - and in fact is given grounds for entrenching his bastardy, and antagonising the good guys.

Also, wait. Does it make sense to extend holism to animals, those incontestable 'subalterns': the literally voiceless and literally erased? Ought we ostracise those who are not at least vegetarian, who are thereby reinforcing this most violent and unspoken of structures, and who are thus in breach of premise 5? The point is 40 years late as an original thought – feminists like Carol Adams have been linking meat to politics for ages – but current as a reductio of one-strike political ethics. What we’d gain in consistency and solidarity with the non-human, we’d much much more than lose in basic effectiveness. In fact it's hard to imagine a better strategy for making the movement irrelevant. (I direct you to the walking liability named Morrissey.) Apart from anything else, I’d never get to speak to any Italians ever again, and that’s a heavy burden.


Tumblr holism (and its attendant public shaming) is conducted in the name of the trendy concept intersectionality. In its sociological version, intersectionality covers some important obvious truths: that people are complicated - always belonging to more than one social group - and that treating them as if they were only e.g. ‘Chinese’ or just ‘a woman’ or ‘disabled’ will have nasty consequences, not least because stigmatised identities perhaps compound in unstraightforward ways. (e.g.: taking employment as a very rough measure of advantage: in the UK in 2011, the unemployment rate was about 6% for men, but 10% for men of Pakistani origin, and 15-20% for Pakistani women.) It also handles the converse: imagining that members of a group all experience the same pressures the same way could be harmful. Basically "people have got a lot going on: be careful".

But the applied pop versions are much less obvious and much more hazardous. They take the form of the above one-strike halo, premise (6), some cannibalistic habits, and a fatuous rule for all fiction and nonfiction: 'if you want to talk about anything you must talk about everything'.

(This last rule is a consequence of their strict and somewhat admirable attitude toward representing all groups in media: to omit any of the many, many sorts of person from your fiction or social commentary is said to be erasure or silencing, grave forms of oppression. The problem with the full-fat version of this attitude is simple: no-one can ever tell the whole truth because it'd take too long. So they're shouting at people who cannot ever satisfy them. But the 'Recognition' programme is sound in other ways, and a start can and should be made.) I suppose what they're after is a proportionate and meaningful share of creative direction and characters
("Hey, I count 15 principal characters in your show - to be fair, please make 8 of them women or non-white or both. Yours, The Internet")
but this isn't what the comments say. Still: fiction can be held to higher standards than reality, simply because it is easier to change.


Let's review the imputed argument for shunning anyone who has ever done anything bad and everything associated with them.

In premise 6, how wrong is wrong enough to earn a blanket ban? Well, SJ people don’t bin Rousseau on learning of his lapses in parenting, so mere callousness and irresponsibility don’t cut it (and anyway that was ages ago). Nor is it a matter of ordinary ethics or law – we don’t fret too much about Kaczynski for his horrific letter bombs. Larkin’s internal offences are enough though, despite never showing in his work or (reputedly) personal conduct.

Just there I marked normative terms with ` (not scare quotes!), because the use of "bad" there is not much connected to the general usage - "what causes suffering to anyone" or "what is unfair to anyone", say. The criterion is not universalist suffering but souped-up political correctness: whenever someone reinforces a bad 'structure', they have stepped outside polite society and the door is barred. The interpretation implied is basically discriminatory: only structural oppression can fill the 'bad politics' or 'bad private acts' clauses. White tears are for drinking, not for breaking lives over.

Against this, note that structures are averages; using them as blanket rules for individual cases (√° la “all rich people are exploiters and bastards”) leads to a straitjacket of categories which real people rarely fit, which are self-fulfilling, and which straits intersectional people are meant to be opposed to.


There is actually one very good argument against reading bastards, though it has little to do with the bastards themselves: it's just that attention is a limited quantity, so by reading the bigoted (or just famous) you're sort of taking away time that could be spent on widely-ignored books by subaltern people. This is true enough, and I'm going out of my way to make my all-topics reading list half women, half nonwhite, and 6% LGBT (these aims somewhat biased toward my British part of the no√∂sphere). There are enough books in the world by all sorts of people to make the usual objections to positive discrimination less relevant than they usually are.

The big problem with this is that the sexist (etc) state of fiction, nonfiction, and academia requires the perfect positive discriminator to avoid most books. But we were doing that anyway: the reading list of any halfway curious person is twice as long at least as their life time.


Reading bad people doesn't make the world worse; it almost certainly doesn't make you worse; and if you're not a tactless ass about it, it won't make any spaces unsafe - so (assuming you're a consequentialist, pardon) reading bad people is fine, so we do not need to actively police bad content out of our lives. The rest is symbolism; that is, the rest is noise.

Even though it is so conceptually troubled, Tumblr holism does have practical recommendations: where there is a choice between quality comrade and quality bigot, we ought opt for the one without unacceptable facets. (This is in fact probably the way to improve a public arena; swapping out bastards.*****)

Except Larkin is not interchangeable; no real poet is. I’m no Heideggerian, but H says interesting things, few of which imply totalitarianism (pace Levinas). Kaczynski is unrepentant about his utilitarian violence against the innocent - violence which his works certainly do incite; we need to understand what reasons a perhaps sane man could have had. Gill’s whole oeuvre is a game played with public pieties; he expects and accepts our rightful opprobrium. (It's a living.) Malcolm X had a road-to-Damascus moment on the road to Mecca and much of what he says after 1964 is amazing. His abstract endorsement of violence may even have been a decision-theory ploy ("You get freedom by letting your enemy know that you'll do anything to get your freedom.") Next to this lot Moran’s gaffe is more easily seen as the facetious thing it was, regarding one tv show rather than wholesale indifference to a tenth(?) of the entire world’s pain.

In any case we must read our opponents and grant them whatever truth and art they manage: our antagonist is our helper, whether they or we like it or not.



*  There are supposedly effects involving involuntary psychological 'contamination' and 'priming' of belief by irrelevant or vivid information. But these have been failing to replicate like crazy, and most were very temporary, and were never shown to affect core emotional /moral domains much.

Interesting, then, to note the similarity of the anti-Page 3 campaign and the old anti-GTA one: they each assume that portrayals are productive of sexism or violence rather than products of them, to some greater extent. Conservatives call this production the tendency to deprave or corrupt, which phrase makes it easier to see the condescension involved. The evidence is actually inconclusive on the social harm from porn, at least in terms of sex- or gender-related crime - since porn images may have effects on body image^^, and since the existence of No More Page 3 is constitutive proof of some harm. But you can and should support getting rid of Page 3 out of respect, rather than symbolic paranoia.^ Also on grounds of taste, but that can't be a sufficient argument for a democratic soul. The question to answer is not "Does Page 3 make people sexist?", but just “Is it sexist itself, and is that something we'd like to be different?”

^ And yet sexism is all over the place. If not our media, where are we to say it comes from? Well, that's a question to build a long academic career on answering, but the prevalence of patriarchal biz in literally all current and historical societies including the vast majority who lacked sexist mass media should perhaps point us elsewhere. If you care what I think, it could be: childhood exemplars, plus direct cultural cues like gendered reinforcement, plus religious hangovers, plus men's egoism and selective blindness^^^, plus women's 'defection', plus most of all simple mimicry and peer pressure, following some evolutionary seed or other.

^^ To what extent? Again, non-media sources are far better predictors of low esteem and dysmorphism. This surprisingly clear and thorough govt review found that: "The majority of research indicates that exposure to idealised body images can result in a small to moderate reduction in body satisfaction and body perception (e.g. Grabe, Ward, & Hyde 2008)... However, this finding is not universal. Some studies have failed to replicate the finding and have instead found that exposure to idealised body images has the same impact as being exposed to images of inanimate objects (e.g. pictures of homes and gardens, Holmstrom, 2004). For women who are only slightly bigger than the models used in the media, exposure to media images improved their body satisfaction (Holstrom, 2004)." Again, this does not excuse the somewhat lethal emphasis on certain body norms; it just shows that its effects are (blessedly?) limited, compared to the effect of peers and explicit ridicule.

^^^ i.e. 'privilege', an abused but still potent idea.

** If you don’t believe this – if you can think of no piece you admire in spite of its author, out of the predominating millions of masterful bastards in world culture – then your senses are terminally laden with your politics, and there might be nothing you can do to access the whole other world of value beyond the moral.

*** Actually three arguments occur to me: the above moral hygiene one; alternatively, the argument from mental hygiene or else this argument from emotional hygiene.
However, these arguments fail in our case, reading: reading problematic people is neither brainwashing nor an involuntary invasion. (I doubt the arguments apply to IRL interactions either, except insofar as it should be up to you who you spend your time around. For a much deeper discussion, do see Scott Alexander, a rich white straight nerd and a beautiful, profound person.)

**** To be clear, these writers deserve absolutely no special dispensation; talent in no way commutes bastardy. Polansi's impunity is a stain on French (and American) justice. But, again: to the extent that the work is untainted by their cruelty or stupidity, to that extent it remains great, and we're irrational to forget this.

That's the theory. Neil MacArthur calls the practical issue with handling the work of brilliant bigots in public the Koestler problem (after Arthur K, a voice of world conscience posthumously outed as a serial rapist). It is a doozy:

Given that famous intellectuals who are also sexual predators have their predations enabled by their celebrity, how are we to behave towards their work and ideas? Koestler is now long dead, so teaching and citing his work does not put anyone at risk. But pretend he were alive. Could we teach him, cite him, write about him? The simplest solution would be just to ignore him... [but] the view that we have an obligation not to promote the work of moral monsters runs hard against two other, very fundamental obligations we have as philosophers and academics: to expose our peers and students to critical discussion of the best, most important ideas available to us, and to give the originators of those ideas due credit for their insights...

At least in the classroom we could, I suppose, try to contextualise the work, by informing our students the sort of person the author was. But Koestler was never charged with a crime, and, though historians have managed to accumulate quite compelling evidence, it would surely have been slanderous during his lifetime to introduce his writings as the work of a rapist.

No easy response to this - though I take it that it is mostly safe to talk about dead bastards (apart from the weak incentive I suppose it gives people who value their intellectual legacy more than basic non-monstrousness).

**** This and much of my position relies on a solid distinction between public virtues and private virtues that holists are likely to reject. Such is political philosophy.

***** What about untalented people with serious moral or political failings?: Fuck em and everything they stand for.