Opinion | How much of the Canon do we cancel?

Opinion by Zora Ilunga-Reed
April 12, 2021, 9:42 p.m.

Over the course of my education, I’ve been assigned readings written by sexual assailants, misogynists, racists and a member of the Nazi party. I have read these works and tried to participate in that complicated academic waltz: two steps forward reading closely and analyzing, one step back to acknowledge the authors’ despicable attitudes and beliefs. It gets easier with practice — but that, too, is a delicate dance. If it gets too easy, I risk full-swing apologetics. Reading these (primarily) men, I toggle between two main attitudes when it comes to their darker sides. On sunny days, I’ll think, “Well, in reading this I’m educating myself, and I am a Woman of Color, and, with this education, I can do good things like scrub off patriarchy and chip away at racism — and that’s good, so the ends justify the means.” On any other day, though, I’ll fill margins with angry scribblings and exclamation points, biting the canon that feeds me.

Neither of these attitudes seems like the correct approach. Unsustainable and draining, they both have the achingly annoying quality of defending a weak point. They’re easily disproven, ultimately unconvincing and, as mentioned, random to the extent that their validity is essentially dependent on the weather. In search of clarity and something like inner peace, over the past few months I’ve picked up and put down the question beneath this meteorological cancel culture dialectic: How can (thinly, should) we engage with media created by cancellable people?

First, what or who is a cancellable person? Since this is a broad category and offenses warranting cancellation run the gamut, I’ve divided it into three main sub-genres. There are people who make art and who have directly and seriously harmed other people. David Foster Wallace abused his then-girlfriend, author Mary Karr. Michael Jackson is another example in this category, as are most of the people accused of abuse in the #MeToo movement. Then, there are people who make art who are associated with generally oppressive groups or ideologies and often spread that messaging using their wide-reaching platforms. Kanye, Degas, and Alice Walker — three artists whose works have been deeply impactful for me — can be umbrella-ed here. Finally, there are people whose art itself is oppressive.

This last one is a tricky category because artistic interpretations are, by nature, diverse and the artist’s intentions pose a new, optional ingredient. Additionally, whether or not you like the art plays a non-negligible role. I hate Quentin Tarantino. I think he makes overrated, gratuitously violent movies with basic plots and boring characters — and on top of that, he’s racist and a misogynist. And while this is a strongly held opinion of mine, I can’t say my thoughts on his racism haven’t meshed with my general dislike of his art. (The case of Tarantino’s racism, or lack thereof, is apparently contentious enough that there is an entire collegiate course dedicated to it.) Similarly, Kanye is one of my favorite rappers and, to put it lightly, a controversial public figure. Just as I accuse Tarantino lovers of complicity, my more morally righteous friends (usually Taylor Swift fans) accuse me of downplaying Kanye’s political dabbling and tricky tweets.

Perhaps this categorization attempt was doomed from the get-go: It doesn’t matter (or it shouldn’t matter) how or why a person was cancelled or is cancellable. Maybe drawing lines between Kanye and Michael Jackson and Tarantino creates an unnecessary, unproductive hierarchy. What does it matter how bad the artist is or was? They still did bad things and made (with the exception of Tarantino) good art and the real concern is how to handle that.

To focus the lens, I offer a classic case from the academic world. Martin Heidegger was instrumental in the 20th-century development of many spheres of philosophy — mainly, phenomenology and existentialism. He did all the classic philosopher stuff: wrote an important dense book, secluded himself in a forest, and had a mustache. He was also an active member of the Nazi party. To call being a Nazi “cancellable” would be reductive and anachronistic, but I hope we can agree that this aspect of Heidegger’s life is serious enough that we’d reasonably wonder whether and, if so, how we should engage with his work. Bent over Being and Time, I’ve asked myself this question countless times.

In conversations with friends and fellow humanities students, this question arises, too. Heidegger is a difficult case because his work is considered fundamentally important in Western philosophy. While you could conceivably avoid consuming media by many cancellable people in various fields, doing philosophy and abstaining from Heidegger is difficult. Yet, anyone with access to the Internet can read about his infamous Black Notebooks which, published posthumously, demonstrated the depth and philosophical significance of his anti-Semitism. Ignorance of his evil is a non-excuse. If you’re up for it, you can read secondary literature that analyzes and offers interpretations of the Black Notebooks. To me, though, doing so seems like surreptitiously slipping out of the academic waltz and into an apologist ballet. So, I stay scrawling question marks in Being and Time and feeling guilty when I agree with his descriptions of existence.

Here lies another sinister strain of consuming media by cancellable artists: shame. According to Spotify, last year I was in the top 3% of Kanye listeners worldwide. As a child, I fell in love with Degas’s paintings, and, despite writing a paper on his anti-Semitism and voyeurism in high school, I still have a print of “Ballet Rehearsal” on my bedroom wall. My senior yearbook quote was from David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. I’m embarrassed by my love for these bad men, and I find myself resenting them for their badness and talent. Sheepishly, I defend them when my Swiftie friends call them (and, by proxy, me) out, then I hate myself for being an overzealous fan, and that hate metastasizes into hate for the artists who made me hate myself.

But, if for nothing else than for the sake of my pride, let’s return to the academic world. For class last quarter, I read a paper by John Searle. During lecture, a classmate sent a link in the chat to coverage of the accusations against him of sexual harassment. Seeing it, the professor chuckled with discomfort and hurriedly continued his lecture. I exchanged some direct messages with the link-sender about the episode and discussed it briefly with the class’s TA in office hours, then shoved it all into the bloated “Awkward Zoom Encounters” file in the back of my mind. Like the dual meteorological reactions, this is not a good method. Fandom, artistic interpretation and anachronism were all absent from this experience: it should’ve been simple. At the defense’s table were a paper and its author, a man who persistently sexually harassed his research assistant. We, the students, were the prosecutors. What should the sentence be? One chuckle and lecture-as-usual seems too lenient. On the other hand, burning the paper and erasing it from the syllabus seems harsh.

What about a required, in-class conscious conversation? What about a break from normalcy to acknowledge the cruel commonality of despicable people who, nevertheless, bring valuable works into the world? I said the students were the prosecutors of this case, but shouldn’t the professor also approach the bench? When I’m assigned reading by a cancellable person, I expect to discuss their cancellability in class. In creating a syllabus, I expect a professor to recognize her imperative to discuss the dark sides of the authors she assigns. If I’m required to critically analyze and closely read these works, I should be required to do the same to their authors. Trite but true, the humanities are composed of humans who come in all flavors of virtuousness. Until we change the canon (turns out, I’m an idealist), I expect cancellability to come up alongside Cartesian thought.

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Zora Ilunga-Reed is a columnist and a junior studying Philosophy & Literature. A native New Yorker, she was a Copy Editor, Desk Editor and Staff Writer in volumes past. Read her column if you want to hear her thoughts on the woes of humanities students, tech culture and more.

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