Hamilton, morally compromised art, rising above revulsion

A few months ago I started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. I thought it was brilliant. It took me through his life, a whole person and his world. From beginning to end, virtues and flaws and through the birth of a nation. The last song bought me to tears, which hasn’t happened before.

A few weeks later I noticed that the actors in Hamilton were almost all non-white. This was strange given America is mostly white and actors/broadway even more so. I did some digging and unsurprisingly it turns out this was due to an explicit and open decision to bar whites from pretty much all major roles in the musical.

When I learned that, I couldn’t enjoy the songs any more. The songs hadn’t changed and neither had the characters, but I knew that every actor who took those roles did so knowing whites couldn’t apply. I knew the anti-white racism which is so accepted and normalised was present here too. It soured my feelings on the music.

This reaction was unconscious. Or, I was conscious of it but didn’t choose to have it. I spent a while thinking about whether the reaction was right. I decided that it wasn’t. I’ve read books by dictators, mass murderers and war criminals without a single emotion. I’ve read books advocating for evil wholesale. Why was I having a strong reaction to Hamilton but to nothing else? The answer isn’t that I have a good reason to think Hamilton is worse than Kissingers memoirs, it’s that it’s an issue which strikes closer to heart because I’ve lived surrounded by it whereas I haven’t experienced Cambodia or Mao’s china. In other words, my reaction was irrational and hence it was wrong.

I thought a bit more about it and there are a wide range of reasons to teach yourself to not only listen to/watch/play works by people you may find morally reprehensible, but to do so without a negative emotional reaction or tint. Those are:

  • Even evil works written by evil people (e.g: Triumph of the Will) can contain insights and interesting ideas. Mao was evil but his strategy for Guerrilla warfare is interesting.
  • Bad or morally flawed people can still write great/good works. A carpenter who is a rapist makes furniture that is still fine to use.
  • Not reading work you consider to be immoral or by immoral people creates a strong filter bubble where you never step outside of your own worldview. This is bad. Of the people you think are immoral, most would think you are immoral. Majorities of humans throughout history held beliefs we today think are self-evidently reprehensible. If you want to be a good person, you should assume a position of extreme scepticism regarding your ability to come to the correct moral conclusions. Instead of shutting out bad people/ideas, you should intentionally seek them out and engage with them until you can pass the ideological turing test both internally and externally.

Feelings of revulsion towards people you disagree with, even the worst people such as war criminals, inhibit clarity and good judgement. They’re feelings I have long avoided and want to continue to not have.

It’s always good to look at the other side of an argument. The good arguments for not consuming art by "bad people" is that

  • you shouldn’t give money to bad people
  • you shouldn’t send a signal to the market/society to make more bad art
  • it has a morally corrosive effect on you

I don’t really find any of these arguments credible.

In terms of giving money and sending signals, you can consume art without paying for it which solves the problem. If it’s status signalling we’re worried about you can also just not tell people you’ve watched it. (There’s a deeper, more fundamental objection here about not punishing people for having non-conforming moral beliefs but I’ll leave that to another article).

In terms of moral corrosion, I agree that watching 10’000 hours of Nazi propaganda makes you more likely to be a Nazi. I still think that assuming that your current moral outlook is fundamentally correct and that your main objective should be to retain it is also pretty unjustified. I guess my opinion here is that listening/watching material has conscious and subconscious effects. The subconscious effects are what we are worried about because they lead to a kind of brainwashing. I think the solution to this is to consume a balance of material expressing different ideologies, people, world views etc… Choosing to consume only things that espouse your current worldview is no different than watching 10k hours of propaganda, you’re still brainwashing yourself just it so happens that the brainwashing is directed at something you already believe.

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