David Bowie’s death on Jan. 10 resulted in an outpour of retrospection, and a slim margin of that retrospection was not of the reverent variety, but of the disgusted. You and I remember Bowie as a provocative and otherwise astounding influence on the world of popular music. Others, however, are keen on remembering his faults.
A recent Tumblr post claims with shaky and noncommittal sources such as blogs and Goodreads articles that Bowie was a pedophile and a racist. Members of what is currently known as “call out culture” would refuse to celebrate Bowie’s legacy based on things he said and did that are completely alleged, namely using the Nazi salute during a performance (the source of which is a photo, and the gesture could have been any arm movement taken out of context) and sleeping with an underage girl.
For now, let’s assume these claims are true.
People on the far side of this culture tend to call it social justice, this idea that anything and anyone who fails to meet an unclear standard of what is morally sound gets blacklisted. I am not defending Bowie or his alleged racism and pedophilia. They are disgusting things and should not be tolerated or ignored. I am defending myself as someone who loves and is critical of art.
Consider this. If you, as a consumer, wanted to openly enjoy and discuss artists like Michael Jackson, Henry Rollins or David Bowie on a platform like Tumblr, you would be blacklisted just like that artist. Before that, though, you would be harassed to no foreseeable end. This kind of harassment is itself often considered one of the Seven Deadly Bad Things of Tumblr. So this “system” of social justice tends to eat its own tail, in a sense.
I fell into this kind of mindset once upon a time. Mind you, I never harassed anyone. But I was careful with what media I consumed. If a movie, book or program used a transphobic or homophobic slur, I didn’t consume it. If a creator did anything considered unethical, I stayed away from what they created. It wasn’t long until I saw the kind of toxicity that festered in such a community. Online friends of mine were harassed and even doxxed for wanting to openly discuss problematic artists. I realized that such harassers are no better than those who take part in grotesque hate campaigns like GamerGate.
As an adult, I know how to enjoy media and be critical of it. That’s what being critical is: taking apart what you love, seeing how awful it is and loving it anyway. In doing so, I think I still have something akin to a pulse. To stew in such an echo chamber and follow others over the harassment campaign cliff is plainly and simply mob mentality. To be a part of a mob is to throw away one’s own sense of self.
What compels me to write about this is how strange and disturbing it all is. The first thing some people did after a man died of cancer was dig up every problematic thing he did and tell others that his life shouldn’t be celebrated. This is what passes as online social justice, a term which has historically been used to describe a system of beliefs promoting racial, gender and sexual equality. What was once an ideology used to encourage love is now another way for us to hate one another. There is a certain irony in that.