Should one judge people by their actions or their work? This controversial question tore the internet apart in 2017. The culture of boycott is classic slippery slope. People do all kinds of terrible things in their personal and professional lives. Does this mean I stop consuming what they do or have done? Perhaps the accusations will stick in a court of law and some will be sentenced, even. Others have already confessed and apologised. I’ll still watch a Roman Polanski or a Woody Allen film. I’ll continue to be a fan of Pulp Fiction that Harvey Weinstein helped produce.
If English cricketer Ben Stokes got into a bar brawl, that doesn’t mean I’ll judge his bowling through that prism. I still think Kevin Pietersen was a damn good player. That his career was cut short for ‘attitude’ issues is his problem. Similarly, some will say that Radiohead is suddenly, overnight, a godawful evil band—their music sucks – because they played a gig in Israel in a stadium built on the rubble of Palestinian villages. We should boycott the bloodsuckers. People do. I don’t.
Should classical musicians stop playing for hardened criminals in maximum security prisons? Should we stop training prison symphony orchestras? In the age of social media indignation, there’s always someone telling you to boycott something, someone. Not possible to keep everyone happy.
Indignation is subjective. As Rod Stewart sang: ‘Some guys have all the luck.’ A politician can stand accused of presiding over genocide and yet be anointed president with a huge majority. A celebrity can run over people with her car on a drunken night out and yet fill gigs to the rafters. Some say that it has to do with the Byronic idea of the male genius, whose artistic accomplishments excuse bad behaviour. Bad behaviour ought not to be excused. But the art stands alone.
This applies to women too. Genius has nothing to do with gender. I judge Nina Simone by her singing, not by the way she illtreated her daughter, as shown in the Netflix documentary. Whoever you are, whatever your gender, if I’ve liked your work in the past, I’ll stick to my affirmation of it, no matter what wrong you’ve been accused or convicted of doing. That biographical detail will not cloud my judgment of your work.
What’s the biggest crime a man can commit? Murder, without doubt. Herman Charles Bosman is widely regarded as a canonical South African writer. Bosman killed a man. In Cold Stone Jug he writes with poignancy and wit of his life in prison: ‘[The murderer] is not dressed by the authorities to single him out from others — bank robbers, forgers, illicit gold buyers, rapists…Cain’s mark is there for all to read.’
He writes with tenderness about seeing the outside world for the first time in four years when he’s sent on a small job to fit a bracket on a guard-post. The colours seem faded— ‘there was a brilliance about those things of the living and the acts of living which was not really there’; they were more vivid in memory, in ‘waking dreams’.
He writes about surviving in a cramped cell: ‘I would crawl round and round the concrete floor of my cage until I would drop dead from exhaustion.’ I’m not concerned with who Bosman killed and why. I know him only through his stories, not all of them set in prisons, and which I admire. You too might want to kill me after reading this. Tell you what: if I survive, and if you’ve written an excellent novel by then, I’ll still give it a good review, despite you making an attempt on my life for having an opinion.
(The writer is the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India)