Mel Gibson’s little contretemps with the police has become a lot more interesting than it started out to be. It raises issues about how we should count traits, prejudice, and considered discourse in making moral judgments about people and, as Gibson is an artist (and not just an actor who speaks the lines of others), how the personality of the artist should count in engaging his work.
In case you’re just back from a retreat with the Trappists, the facts are that Gibson (i) produced, directed and wrote The Passion of the Christ, a movie some think blames the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion, reigniting an ancient motivator of anti-Semitism, (ii) reportedly puts filial piety above rejecting his father’s holocaust-denier views, or maybe he agrees with Dad, (iii) hit the road in Malibu after a party with a BAC of 0.12, which is 50% over California DWI limit, but not falling-down drunk (about 6 drinks in 2 hr. for a 180 lb. man), (iv) is widely reported without denial to be alcoholic, (v) greeted the policeman who stopped him and wrote him up with an anti-Semitic tirade (of the “Jews run everything from behind the scenes” variety, type III.b.4). There’s some noise that the cops left the last part out of the report to keep it from public view.
When his head cleared, he (and his handlers) went into contrite mode in two phases; the first omitting the part about the Jews and just apologizing for DWI, being rude, and for his hostility, the second, a day later, rending garments in apology to the Jews and saying very harsh things about anti-Semitism. These spectacles have been truly spell-binding; who knew that when Braveheart took off the blue paint we would get Uriah Heep?
Since he’s such a public figure, it isn’t piling on to use his case to consider what one should make of this sort of thing. The easy one first: anyone who gets in a car on the public ways in Gibson’s condition is reckless with the lives of anyone who might be on the road; the behavior is all the more reprehensible in one who can afford to be driven anywhere he wants, any time, in the vehicle of his choice.
CORRECTION: The original version of this post reported a BAC of .28 and was proportionately tougher on Gibson; my mistake. Sorry.
Now, the interesting part: First, do we assume alcohol lowers inhibitions and that people will say (slurred and blurred though the rhetoric be) what they “really think” when drunk? Or is a drunk just talking nonsense? If the former, Gibson has revealed himself to be an anti-Semite. But these views can result from an unexamined, deeply rooted personality trait like being a good speller or a nasty SOB, or they can derive from sober analysis of data and thoughtful reflection (however defective the rational process) – or both, the former biasing and steering the latter.
Gibson’s life in Hollywood has surely rubbed him up against lots of Jews from which experience a reasonable person would infer that they are about as good and as bad as everyone else, so my bet is on the deep personality defect; this is not a guy from a village in Saudi Arabia who’s never met a Jew and heard nothing but calumny about them.
Anyway, which is more reprehensible? In principle, there’s nothing to be done for the first case, any more than reasoning with a deaf person (or imploring) will restore his hearing, but it’s easier instinctively to despise someone whose bigotry is a trait than someone who got there by sloppy thinking or bad education. My guess is that instinct is wrong here: to hate the sin and love the sinner is a practiced skill, not an easy one to acquire, but well worth having. The distinction is something like the difference between being an alcoholic and driving while drunk.
What about the bigot who doesn’t bother to edit his speech compared to the one who understands that social convention and the good regard of society and his friends requires that he dissemble? Jewish doctrine holds it more virtuous to obey a commandment against one’s desires than because one wants to anyway; there’s no merit in liking the taste of matzo so much that one delights in eating it all the time during Passover. On this principle, the bigot who conceals his prejudice is more to be admired than the one who lets it all hang out…or is there some intrinsic merit in being completely honest about everything you feel?
Let’s assume Gibson to have been nailed as an anti-Semite in his heart, but who somehow knew it wasn’t anything to boast about or display until alcohol and anger loosened his tongue. How are we supposed to take his artistic product? Western aesthetic theory tends to seek the personality of the artist in the work, a question hard to ignore regarding Gibson’s passion movie, maybe important even when he’s acting. Fortunately, no-one thinks Mel Gibson has given us an body of deathless art central to our civilization, but the general question arises where it really matters. It’s not hard to find explicit anti-Semitic symbolism and German xenophobia here and there in Wagner’s operas (not to mention his essays); are we to assume his prejudices must pervade everything he wrote even if one can’t demonstrate exactly how a diminished ninth chord in such and such a progression poisons the listener’s mind? Is it OK to hear Tristan and Isolde carried away by their mutual attraction on its own terms, or must one play a mental obbligato through even this most personal, apolitical, scene saying “remember, the guy who wrote this was a poster boy for Hitler (not to mention a misogynist who treated women very badly).” What about recordings from the 30s, conducted by Mengelberg, Krauss, and von Karajan; the notes are the ones Beethoven wrote, but conductors are important and these guys were in bed with, or playing footsie with, real, consequential, over-the-top evil. Does that not matter, not matter much, not matter any more…? Read properly, The Merchant of Venice doesn’t actually blight Shakespeare, but should The Jew of Malta put Marlowe off the shelf?
My inclination is to be extremely tolerant of the personality defects of artists and even the evil in this and that of their works, and to have modest expectations of anyone’s ability to swim against a surrounding cultural and political current (and great admiration for those who do, when the current is going the wrong way). The same goes for scientists; I think I havea duty to understand, and to believe, what Shockley discovered about semiconductors, and Chomsky about language, despite their political forays into what I see as looneyland.
At the same time, there’s no reason to cut these people slack for their specific offenses just because of their talent. On the example of, and teaching by, my mother the sculptor, I am impatient with treating artists or any geniuses like children. But the offenses have to be acts (including artistic acts); traits may have consequences in practice, and then they matter, but personal bad behavior (mistreating family and friends), and just being a bigot in one’s heart (or a communist, or even a Nazi, I guess) are between the sinner and his circle, or his Maker, and on the whole, none of our business.