Michael Jackson had three qualities that would have made him comfortable with some members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He loved an audience, he wore astonishing garments, and he pretended that young boys consented to be his lovers.
Martin Heidegger had three qualities that would have made him comfortable with some members of Alternative für Deutschland. He loved his country, he had an astonishing way with the German language, and he pretended the Holocaust was not happening.
For work/life separatists what should engage our attention about Jackson and Heidegger is solely their work. Yes, their lives were entangled with evil—and of course the work/life separatist concedes that merits a preface or a footnote–but no one interested in popular music of the last century can ignore Thriller and no one interested in post-Kantian German philosophy can ignore Being and Time, and that is what matters.
The separatist is correct to this extent: any suggestion that we should now stop listening to Jackson, or stop reading Heidegger, would be seriously wrong. There are things of real value that we would lose. Anyway, where would it stop? Oscar Wilde may have been a brilliant writer and gay hero, but his rent-boys were boys. Charles Maurras may have been a critic of ‘scientific racism’, but he was an enthusiast of state-sponsored anti-Semitism. And exactly how old was Alcibiades during those early, flirty afternoons with Socrates? And what exactly did the writer of Matthew’s gospel mean when he had the Jewish crowd chant, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
So you see the appeal of work/life separatism.
And yet: We cannot rule out of hand the possibility that we will have a deeper understanding—musicological, not just historical—of Jackson’s work if we keep front and centre the fact that the loves in his lyrics may be pederastic. We cannot dismiss the possibility that we only appreciate Heidegger’s disempowering metaphysics of ‘Being’ if we see it as a screen for contemptuous attitudes towards actual human beings. But note: whatever merit there may be in such conjectures, it argues, not for erasing the works from the canon or boycotting them, but for keeping the lives conjoined to the works. It argues against separatism, but in favour of inclusion.
However, another point also needs to be made. Jackson and Heidegger are dead. Jackson is not engaging in the orgy of boy-rape sheltered by misogynist religions. Heidegger is not torching synagogues or introducing the Führerprinzip into university governance. (Though plenty of non-Nazi Vice-chancellors of English universities appear to think it has attractions.)
We would have reason to feel differently if the rapist was not a dead singer but our brilliant, energetic colleague down the hall; or if the anti-Semite were the smiling, emollient leader of our laboratory. In such cases we have a positive duty to speak up and to speak out. Academic freedom and tenure, where they exist, are not only there to ensure we can flog some abstruse doctrine hardly anyone cares about. They are also there to ensure we can do our other duties to the university and to our students. In most cases, we will also have a reason (though not a duty) to deny the rapist or racist what JS Mill called our ‘good offices’—our collaboration, our collegiality, our company.
But what about the works that make them famous, or the lectures that bring them prizes? Is their value somehow diminished by the rape, or tainted by the racism? In most cases, no. Nonetheless, while the rapists and racists are still alive, it is difficult for us to honour the work without also, to some extent, honouring the worker. So there are matters of moral consequence and proportion to attend to. And we can always return to give the work its due when the worker, like Jackson and Heidegger, is no longer in any position to derive influence from the honour.
Great artists and great thinkers often crave immortality through their works. Some of them believe their works will bestow it. They can hardly complain if we decide to wait before kick-starting their immortal lives.