Enjoying the work of Kevin Spacey the actor doesn’t make you a bad person. Even now, knowing what you’ve read about him in the media, you are under no moral obligation to switch channel if American Beauty comes on. Enjoying the actor’s work doesn’t mean you tacitly endorse the alleged behaviour of Kevin Spacey the private citizen. Glengarry Glen Ross remains a masterpiece. But you’d probably think twice about watching it on your iPad on a crowded train, wouldn’t you?
The moral panic around people watching – and appreciating – Spacey’s many critically acclaimed dramatic performances isn’t about Kevin Spacey and whether he deserves an audience. Let’s not forget, he hasn’t been convicted of anything. This is about us. It’s about how Spacey reflects on us as arbiters of public virtue.
Because in 2017, the people we admire, much like the brands we buy and the ones we boycott, form an integral part of our own identity.
We’ve learned to treat the virtues of our favourite public figures and our favourite brands as if they’re our very own. When our favourite celebrity sends a Tweet attacking Donald Trump or attacking sexism, or – as is quite likely – attacking Trump’s sexism, we retweet.
When Justin Trudeau makes a progressive political statement with his socks, all of his supporters own a share of the credit. When Beyoncé Knowles awards someone a scholarship, we all award someone a scholarship. Celebrities invite us to partake in their good deeds – and we gladly accept. The blurb for Beyoncé’s #Beygood initiative is explicit:
We’re all in this together. Each and every one of us can make a difference by giving back. Join Beyoncé and #BEYGOOD.
A solid set of ethics are now part of the artist’s public persona. “Woke” celebrities need only mutter in support of a popular idea and their social capital rises. It rises because we amplify it. We amplify it because it reflects well on us. Social media has enabled celebrities and brands to communicate a social purpose at a volume that was impossible before. They can reflect back to us what we want to see in ourselves.
They’re allies to our cause. They prove to us that we chose wisely in elevating them with our patronage. So when they fall short of the standards we demand, as humans often do, it feels like a personal betrayal. We put them in this position of great influence.
But investing this heavily in the social construct of a celebrity is unhealthy. It’s what drives us to worry about whether or not we’re allowed to still like the actor Kevin Spacey or enjoy his work.
When Rolf Harris was convicted of 12 counts of indecent assault (now reduced to 11), it was a relatively new experience for us as an audience – it genuinely shocked us. Rolf Harris was a “national treasure”. Jimmy Savile was different. His public persona was never cuddly or pure like Rolf Harris’s.
“Not Rolf too!” we protested. “That’s my childhood ruined.” We weren’t equipped to be let down to this extent. We were so stunned at the deception that we barely spared a thought for the actual victims. Post-Savile and Weinstein (who, let’s not forget, has also not been convicted of any crime), that primitive, naive “Not you, Rolf!” reflex has evolved into a much more visceral protection of our own identity. This is why we question ourselves so harshly when one of our own transgresses.
Evolving concurrently to the morals as marketing concept was it’s ethical counterweight. If liking ostensibly good artists made you a good person, then surely it also reflects on on you when they transgress. And the bar for outrage is getting ever lower.
Your fave is a problem
Three years ago, six bloggers founded a Tumblr page called Your Fave is Problematic. It’s a meticulously compiled and zealously moderated archive of celebrity transgressions. High-profile individuals accused of micro-aggressions, cultural appropriation and fat-shaming were chronicled daily. It marked a turning point in what was already a burgeoning call-out culture.
The blog implicated not only the transgressor, but their admirers. The tone – and of course the name of the blog – effectively lays the blame for the celebrity’s transgressions at the door of his or her admirers. If you see your favourite singer on here, that’s on you. Make better choices.
Of course, if you never liked Kevin Spacey to begin with, it doesn’t matter. Your identity remains intact, enhanced even. It’s as beneficial to a person’s identity when someone they dislike proves them right by being a bad person.
There’s a reason Google searches for Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein costumes spiked the week before Halloween this year. For some of us, it’s all fun and games. When the person never formed part of our own personal brand, their behaviour doesn’t impact us.
So why do some people get a pass?
Some celebrities have acted so wickedly that there’s no question of whether to disavow them. It’s impossible to hear any song by Lostprophets – not that you’re likely to – without instantly recalling the horrors of what singer Ian Watkins did. Few will argue that the band are due a critical reappraisal any time soon, even if 83.3% of its members did nothing wrong.
The egregiousness of his crimes gives some of us a clarifying moral wisdom. It’s just safer to never, ever put a Lostprophets record on. Even for a joke.
But when you consider less open-and-shut cases, it’s hard to know how to proceed. Yet-to-be proven allegations, denied allegations and even plain old rumours are either cast-iron proof of a person’s lack of virtue, or it proves that the “other side” are making unfounded claims, depending on your existing opinion of that person.
It often comes down to politics and ideology. The American right barely concealed their schadenfreude when the Democrat-supporting Weinstein was outed as a sexual harasser. Their opposite numbers were quick to point to the current inhabitant of the White House in response.
But when we invest so heavily in the public image of someone we don’t know, we do become blind to how problematic they are. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have continued working while dogged by allegations of moral equivalence to those made against Spacey.
And as I write this, Manchester’s The Happy Mondays are on a UK tour. The band’s dancer, Bez (Mark Berry) will be with them as always, delighting audiences who probably don’t know – or can’t remember – that he went to jail in 2010 for “throttling” his girlfriend. Michael Fallon recently quit as defence secretary for touching Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee 15 years ago. She’d already forgiven him, but have we?
We’re right to question which people we admire – but the intense process of self-interrogation and policing of those who may consume the work of someone like Kevin Spacey is not healthy.
Cary Cooper, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health, University of Manchester.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.