On Michael Jackson and Martin Heidegger


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.











13 thoughts on “On Michael Jackson and Martin Heidegger

  1. Interesting typo in the first line of the last paragraph!

    What do we do with ongoing philosophical work which seems to have unacceptable political implications? My gut feeling is that engagement rather than silencing is appropriate, if only out of a fallibilist concern that we could silence voices we needed later. I feel that this approach has a limit, and that there are academic projects which one would want shut down (Holocaust denial? paedophilia apologetics?), but, just as I wouldn’t want to refuse engagement across the board, I wouldn’t feel confident in defining where that line would be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good, though different, worry. I’m thinking about bad people who do good work. We could also think about (otherwise) good people who do (morally) bad work. Like you, my instincts there are mainly permissive, though we can all imagine limiting cases (without needing to imagine that any line sharply divides what we should tolerate from what we shouldn’t tolerate).


  2. This is part of a comment from a post on Leiter. It’s about philosophers in the first instance but if I am right the argument applies mutatis mutandis to cultural producers of other kinds.

    Some philosophers have seductive literary personalities. . In engaging with their ideas you feel yourself to be engaging with a personality, often a personality that it is hard not to like and admire (Lakatos for me, Wittgenstein for others). But there is something wrong with admiring or liking those who are not truly admirable. So *that‘s* why it is sometimes worth making a fuss about a famous a philosopher’s dubious deeds. When we celebrate what Lakatos made of of his massive intellectual gifts we do well to remember that because of him there was at least one idealistic young woman who never got to develop the gifts that she may have had because he pressured her into swallowing poison. When we swoon to the hypnotic charm of Wittgenstein’s writings we do well to remember that there was one poor kid who died at fourteen, who Wittgenstein hit so hard that he collapsed, and whose short life was probably made miserable by a terrifying teacher. But this is not a practical concern nor is it specific to any one issue such as sexual harassment. The chances of actually meeting (let alone being physically seduced by) these literary seducers are often pretty slim. After all, many of them are dead. No, the real issue is making hero or a heroine of somebody who doesn’t deserve it, something that it is surprisingly easy to do. This is not a reason, I think, for not assigning great but flawed philosophers, good but flawed philosophers, or even OK but flawed philosophers, but it is a reason (sometimes) for saying a little something about the flaws.


    • Nice point. My own inclination is to say that this is another important issue (rather than ‘the real issue’). I think there are often a number of real (=morally significant) issue. I very much like your idea that some writers have ‘seductive literary personalities’. That hadn’t occurred to me. When I think of my own (short) list of such philosophers they tend not to be among those whose arguments I find most illuminating, or who influence me the most. The one exception, for me, is Bernard Williams.


  3. There can be a great gap between the literary persona and the actual personality or character of a philosopher, and I think it is important for students to learn that there is this gap and to learn how large it can be. A first-year philosophy course at a university where I once taught featured Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy” and Ayer’s”Language Truth and Logic.” The students, in general, LIKED Russell, whose writing is cheerful and witty, and DISLIKED Ayer who (in that, polemical, book) comes across as unsympathetic and negative. And yet, on the testimony of people personally acquainted with them, Ayer was a very pleasant personality and fun to be around, and Russell… well, however liberal he was in theory, in his presence you had to remember he was an earl, and you weren’t easily forgiven if you forgot! I think it would be a genuinely valuable educational “outcome” if the students took away from the course a knowledge that you can’t always infer a personality from a persona!


    • Ayer could also be an appalling snob, a brutal teacher, and a disloyal friend. But your general point is right. I know charming, chummy, philosophers in my own fields who were also serial sexual harassers. But everyone loved their jokes.


  4. Another idea: an evil genius grant. This would be a grant that combines public moral condemnation and modest financial support, i.e. a foundation could administer stipends to morally reprehensible geniuses once they are publicly found to be morally reprehensible and also have no way of earning a living as a result. Such a foundation would probably not be a very popular place to send charitable donations, but it might have some upsides. The recipients of the evil genius grant could continue their intellectual/artistic work in solitude and the grant would also clearly mark them as bad people you might want to avoid, would bestow no institutional power, and may even do further harm to their reputation or at least make their failings more widely known. What’s not to like? (Besides giving money to bad guys…)


  5. I think I basically agree with this, but I wonder if I can put a devil’s advocate argument against it.
    One of the things that academics and culture do is to curate a canon of important and/or good work. However, the uncertainty around these canons is notorious. It’s far from obvious to me that introducing “the producer of the work was a good person” would be more distorting or troubling than any of the other myriad factors that go into making a canon.
    For example, with classical philosophers, by far the most important criterion for inclusion is whether or not any texts have survived – hardly a robust epistemic or moral reason.
    With modern figures there are factors like popularity, but they’re hardly decisive (country & western sells millions, but very few people regard it as important).
    There’s level of academic interest, but that waxes and wanes over the course of decades.
    There’s cultural influence, but that’s very hard to measure – so hard that I think it’s mostly in the eye of the interpreter. (Here I might insert an argument against reading Heidegger just because he was influential: You can read the good responses to him (which may or may not mean responses by good people). Philosophy/history/culture always picks a starting point – reading Plato isn’t invalidated because we didn’t read the guys he was responding to.)

    The reasons above are strengthened when we define “good person” as merely someone who didn’t fail a couple of pretty basic more standards: (1) Did they rape children? (2) Did they advocate genocide? I know there’s a danger of sliding and pedantry on the question of who is “good enough,” but surely these two standards aren’t unreasonable?

    As a thought experiment, I invite you to contemplate a canon (popular or academic) that was made up exclusively of people who didn’t rape children or advocate genocide. I don’t think that the quality of such a canon would be any lower – there are a lot of great thinkers and artists who meet these very low standards. Appreciators of the canon would be freed from the nagging fear that the next work they look at is going to be a piece of child rape apologetics or racial hate; and from the fear that their appreciation is tainted by those attitudes. Popular culture, with its gossipy interest in the lives of important artists/thinkers, would be freed from the embarrassment of wading through child rape.
    One of the definitions of education is that it’s exposure to the best that humanity has produced (I don’t really agree with this definition, but it has its appeal.) Particularly in the case of educating children, it feels like there’s some value in just keeping them away from child rapists and genocide advocators, and creating canons that contain neither is one step in that direction. (This is a bit of a “won’t someone think of the children!” argument, so I’m not sure if it really stands up.)

    And finally, imagine if we are committed to the idea of progress. I think in general, we’re quite comfortable abandoning ideas and canons that just don’t stand up to the moral standards we now espouse. There are a lot of really good speeches out there on why people are dumb and need strong leaders. We don’t bother with them so much now because those people were wrong and mainly bad. There’s nothing wrong with being progressive – minimally, conservatively progressive – in the selection of any canon.

    There you go, I’m not sure how much I believe all of that, but they seem to me to be not inconsiderable arguments. By contrast, “MJ/MH were important” doesn’t seem to stand up – stop talking about them, and they aren’t important any more. “MJ/MH” were good seems like a stronger argument, and may even be true in the case of MH. Michael Jackson’s music was no better than any other big 80s stadium filler (Madonna, Bon Jovi).


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