The Fine Line Between Socially Justifiable and Morally Reprehensible

My wife asked me the other day what I thought about the scandal surrounding recently-resigned Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel, wherein photos of him in blackface, mocking Hurricane Katrina victims, surfaced nearly fifteen years after the fact. To be fair, I hadn’t even heard, but it brought up a (short-lived) debate over what is, and what isn’t, justifiable in the long-term.

During the conversation, she brought up the controversy over Brett Cavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and how he was not (successfully) persuaded to resign, despite the surfacing of what was, to many, a far worse crime. Her position was that, in Ertel’s case, despite the offensiveness of his behavior, no one was hurt – something that can’t be said of Cavanaugh. As such, it comes across as painfully ironic that the perpetrator of a lesser crime should suffer more than someone who stands accused of rape.

She pointed out that Ertel’s mockery of terrible suffering was – or at least could have been – nothing more than a poor decision, and not necessarily reflective of his perspective or personality, especially after fifteen years, whereas someone who thinks it’s okay to sexually assault women is, essentially, unredeemable.

It reminded me also of the case against Brock Turner, who was not simply accused of rape, but actually caught in the act itself. A great furore was made in his defense that his own actions were themselves simply a poor decision, and that a single mistake as a youth shouldn’t jeopardize an entire career, life, whatever.

I thought it interesting that my wife was willing to give someone mocking tragedy victims in a racially charged manner a second chance, but not someone who made the decision to rape another human being. She’s right, to an extent – far more individual harm was done by Cavanaugh and Turner than by Ertel – but to hinge the argument on the mental capacity for change – and the assumption that a rapist can’t change, but a racist can – is a potentially dangerous proposition.

I don’t normally take much of a stance on these types of societal problems – I feel too far removed, socially and mentally, to make a valid argument – but in this instance, it’s given me pause for thought. To start with, I want to dismiss the argument of ‘legal’ vs. ‘illegal’; laws are arbitrary, and fluctuate with the whims of what present-day society deems acceptable or not. I’m not going to discuss whether racial mockery is okay because it isn’t explicitly against the law; I’d rather discuss this in the context of what is, simply, right or wrong.

All things are driven by human decision; the decision to get up, the decision to go to bed, the decision to wear this shirt or that sweater, and the decision whether to do what’s right or what’s wrong. Of course, in that sense right and wrong are entirely subjective, and mercy to the whims of what’s socially implanted in our minds; we’re taught (as a whole) that rape is wrong, and yet men do it every day.

Why?

Why is that the decision they go with – to have sex with an unconscious girl, or to physically force themselves on someone who is literally fighting back? In the moment before the act, there is a decision – to do, or not to do. Most people, I think, would choose to not do, but there are, quite clearly, some who choose the opposite.

Is there something fundamentally wrong with the mental wiring in those individuals? Is it something that is inherent to their psychology, that no amount of teaching or conditioning can overcome? Is it simply that they were never taught to control their baser urges, and act without thought – and can they be taught to think, instead? Or, simpler still, is that in-the-moment decision to rape, or to wear blackface, the product of poor upbringing and circumstance – a combination that may never replicate itself exactly the same ever again?

This isn’t an easy debate; if Ertel hadn’t had these photos surface, he would still be Secretary of State – and would the fact of his behavior fifteen years ago change his ability to perform his job? Even if he thought such behavior was acceptable in 2005, does that mean he still does? The emergence of evidence doesn’t change the past – only how we view it. Certainly some people who held Ertel in high regard now condemn him – whilst others who never held an opinion one way or the other now feel sympathy.

If Brock Turner hadn’t been caught, would he have a burgeoning career, an academic future, and a happy life? Probably. Again – it doesn’t change the fact of what he did, only how he is perceived. If Turner had raped that girl and left, never to be known, he would have likely gone on to a perfectly normal life – at the expense of hers. Maybe he would have learned that he can get away with rape, and gone on to commit further crimes – or maybe it would have just become a skeleton in his closet.

To add fuel to the fire, the increasing impossibility of remaining private in a world of perpetual social impressions leads to the question of what’s more important: the act, or the act of being caught. Evidence of the past is becoming ever more difficult to erase, but should it be held against us years – sometimes decades – later? Surely, we’ve all done things we regret; does that mean we’re to be judged for life for those things?

I think there a couple of considerations when condemning – or forgiving – a person for their past. The point my wife brought up – of direct harm – is valid, and worth bearing in mind. What level of hurt did a person’s behavior effect upon another human being? Is it fair that a rapist be allowed a normal life, when their victim’s world is utterly shattered?

I also think the influence a person has on society should be taken into consideration when casting judgement on their past. Whilst no one is perfect, people with a wide sphere of influence – celebrities, politicians, lawmakers, etc. – absolutely must be held to a higher standard. It’s utterly deplorable that Brett Cavanaugh was even considered for the Supreme Court after the accusations leveled at him – in some ways, far worse than the lenient sentence levied against Brock Turner. And in equal measure, someone who behaves in a racist manner – be it then or now (for what it’s worth, Ertel was already a supervisor of elections in 2005) – should answer for their transgressions.

With that being said, I don’t believe that anyone – position of influence or not – should be treated differently in light of their crimes, for better or for worse. Cavanaugh and Turner should have been judged equally in the eyes of the law, and if found guilty, punished accordingly. In both cases, I don’t feel that true justice was served. As for Ertel, it’s no argument to say that 2005 was a different time, because racism is racism regardless of era. Context is important, but can’t be everything. Joke in poor taste or not, this is a person who chose a career in which he is in the public eye – and as such, has a duty to society to uphold the values that that same society deems worthy.

If there is a lesson to any of this, I think it might be this: the truth will always come out, and as such, it’s probably best to be true to yourself, and let the chips lie where they fall. I’ve been blogging since 2011, and there are probably things in my 813 posts that, in hindsight, I might’ve rather not written. Yet I can at least say, with some level of integrity, that what I’ve said was my truth, at that time, and as such shouldn’t be hidden or altered. If what I’ve said makes me reprehensible, then at least I know that’s who I am.

At the end of the day, our behaviors are what define us, and our actions over time are where judgement should lie. We all make mistakes, but a person’s true character can be told from two things: the egregiousness and the frequency of their crimes.

Can someone be forgiven for heinousness in their past? Can people truly change? Or does a person, once sinned, lose the right to repentance?

What do you think?

Thought of the Week: The Right and Wrong of Revising Your Writing

First of all, I had considered titling this The Wright and Wrong of Wrevising Your Writing, but it seemed a little too kitsch. What do you think?

Secondly, I have no intention of defining right and wrong. I’m not that daft.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is one of my favorite composers. His four symphonies are of course the best known of his works, the first in particular, opening with its dramatic C minor chords and booming timpani, inspiring pathos and doom in all their forms. However, far more than these massive works I prefer his chamber music, and in particular his works for piano and strings. In his life, Brahms wrote three piano trios, three piano quartets, and one piano quintet. That we know of.

His first piano trio, in B, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and is a constant player for me. The opening theme is serene and grand, and simply leads onward from there. The scherzo is tense and jittery, with the third movement being the sound of utter beauty. The finale, with its ambiguous tonality, draws on the agitation of the scherzo but adds in a extra melodic element to it.

Here’s the thing: it isn’t what he originally wrote. The piano trio was written and published in 1954, when Brahms was twenty-one. The piano trio we hear and listen to today was written and published in 1891, when he was fifty-eight, and it is almost completely different. In fact, it’s unique that we even know of the two versions, because Brahms spent his entire life revising and rewriting his works, never satisfied with the results. The tragedy of this was that, upon completion of his revision, Brahms would burn the original manuscript, leaving us with no trace of the process of his genius.

This is a shame, for having heard both versions, I actually find myself preferring the simpler innocence of twenty-one-year-old Brahms to his more mature and darker fifty-eight-year old self. I am given to wonder what the first editions of his other works might have been like. Sometimes there is a charm and quality in the passion of the first draft – Black Sabbath’s debut album, recorded on an eight track for £500, is a masterpiece.

My son makes up stories. Mostly in his head at the moment, but he enjoys it. Recently he started inventing back stories for the bounty hunters in Star Wars, which I thought was pretty cool, and not something I had given much thought to. When we discussed it, we realized that a particular detail of his invention couldn’t possibly have happened, because Boba Fett ended up alone on Jabba’s skiff over the Pit of Sarlaac, and so couldn’t have been involved in a smuggler’s ring previously. At first he disagreed with me, and I let him have his way. But a few hours later, he came to me and asked, “Dad…is it okay if I change the history I made up about the Star Wars bounty hunters?”

I thought this was incredibly insightful; having only just invented this history hours before, there was already a danger to him of changing that history – as though it would be telling a lie. If we decided to change our minds and say that it was actually Buzz Aldrin that first walked on the moon, there would be an outcry. “Lynch them!” people would cry. And they would be right.

But then what of fictional history? The natural answer would be, of course you can change it – it was made up in the first place! But look at what happened when George Lucas changed the history of Star Wars, with his revisions of Episodes IV, V and VI, and the release of Episodes I, II and III. Some of the scenery in the original movies was entirely changed. Whole scenes were added, which again changed the meaning of some of the story. Han Solo fired first! In the later films, we learn details that very nearly contradict the original movies entirely, and people have had to greatly stretch the meaning of some of the character’s dialogue in order for it to all fit. And look at what poor George got for his efforts.

So where does that leave us? As a fiction writer, you’ll often find yourself modifying some of your back story so that it makes more sense in the context of the main plot. Heaven knows, half of what I created in the Appendices of The Redemption of Erâth has already been flatly contradicted by the story I’m now writing. And I can’t imagine anyone would question me for that.

So when does it stop being okay to change your story’s history, or even the story itself? I’m sure J.K. Rowling wasn’t 100% happy with every word she wrote; even I can see some passages that leave something to be desired. But would we let her rewrite the book? Is it merely when the book becomes published that we lose the right to change it? Isn’t still in its essential nature our work? Why shouldn’t we be able to change it as we see fit?

I don’t have an answer to this; Brahms got away with it, and George Lucas didn’t. Peter Jackson felt the need to turn the ten hours running time of The Lord of the Rings trilogy into fifteen hours, and most people are okay with that (though not, perhaps, with watching it all). It seems funny how the public become so possessive of another person’s work – as though we owe it to them to stand by the work we created. Is this fair?

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Satis

To the Oddest Person I’ve Ever Met

Can you believe it’s already been eight years since we first met? It’s surprising, when you think about it; neither of us knew each other at all all the way back then, and it was coincidence, really – a one in a hundred million chance – that we should even meet. In fact, probably shouldn’t have even happened. Amazing, then, that eight years later, we should still be in touch with each other.

Of course, you didn’t really speak to me much back then. No matter how much I tried to engage you in conversation, all I’d get were monosyllabic responses. I thought this was pretty odd behavior at the time, but I understand now that you were teaching me how to speak clearly, and slowly. How was I to know you had difficulty understanding me? I’ve worked hard at this, you know – everyone comments now on my clarity when I’m delivering a speech or presentation.

Despite that, even today there are times when I don’t really feel you’ve heard what I tried to say. But then, I’ll admit there are plenty of times when I don’t understand you, either. In fact, there are times when I don’t even listen to you.

Please don’t take me to task too much for this; despite the time we’ve spent together, our interests only partially overlap. We do both like reading, we like the same movies, and we both get a good laugh out of toilet humor, but our taste in music couldn’t be more different. Perhaps I’m just being narrow-minded, but honestly – to try and teach me the words to “Dynamite?” I’ll have you know I bought tickets to Iron Maiden last week, and you aren’t invited.

Our relationship hasn’t always been on the best of terms, either. We both get pretty angry with each other sometimes, and then we both sulk and won’t speak to each other for hours. Still, it all comes out in the end, and somehow you always find it in you to forgive me, no matter what I do. In fact, I’m kind of taken aback by just how much you tolerate of my poor behavior. It’s almost like you made some kind of subconscious decision that you’d stay with me no matter what happens. I just hope that lasts another eight years!

You do get jealous, sometimes; I remember the time you freaked out when you saw me kiss my wife. I know you don’t like the thought of us sharing a bed, but you understand: I’ve really made a commitment there, so I’m pretty much stuck with it. On the flip side, you don’t mind my long hair nearly as much, although you did tell me my beard is scratchy. I’m sorry – it’s not coming off for you, or anyone.

Through it all, though, I have to say – and I mean this, really – that knowing you has changed me for the better. You taught me things I never even considered before, and opened my eyes to a wider world. You taught me I could love more than one person, and that it was right to do so. You helped me to stop drinking so much, and got me on the meds I needed after so many years. You got me writing again, when I had all but abandoned it.

The only thing, I think, that really stands in the way is the age difference. Perhaps that’s the root of some of our differences in tastes – you’re more in touch with today’s youth. Still, I wouldn’t give it up for anything, even if people do stare at us holding hands as we walk down the street. What do they know? Things have changed, even compared to when we met. Eight years ago, I was a lifetime younger…and today, you are only eight.