Thursday, July 09, 2009

The "Balance Sheet" Paradox

OK, I've had my distance from the whole Michael Jackson thing. I was really shocked and sad that he died; I mean, the road he was going down, it seemed rather inevitable. But it was still a shock.

Watching his memorial on TV, however, brought to mind something that has always puzzled/troubled me. And that's the Balance Sheet Paradox.

Do the things you do in life that are extremely awesome "balance out" the things you do in life that are extremely not awesome? Or further: not merely "balance out," but eclipse, bury the badness?

For example, I've read a lot of online debates recently regarding whether Jackson's huge contributions to music & extensive philanthropic acts more than "make up" for the facts of his obvious massive narcissism, drug abuse, and, at the very minimum, behavior towards some children that was (if not overtly sexual) sort of really weird. I've even read opinions where Michael Jackson was such a larger-than-life star with such larger-than-life needs and stresses, that if he needed to "blow off some steam" in a number of different ways he should be forgiven for it; that it's the price of us having such an important, world-changing individual in our midst.

Often lost in this balance sheet are individual victims. They are, in the face of the balance sheet, "not really that important." A necessary price to pay for greatness. For example, I've often heard the line of reasoning that compared to all the good President Clinton did, one affair with a White House intern was not a big deal. (In fact, what was that hussy doing, trying to seduce our president, anyhow?) I've heard this argument from not a few women. Monica Lewinsky, in this line of reasoning, was simply "collateral damage."

Another example I remember from my early twenties, as I attended an academic function that was in tribute to a particular teacher. The popular teacher had brought tremendous acclaim and funding to the school, and had performed many charitable acts. He was lionized as a saint, a rockstar, at this party. But I knew that he also was a serial seducer and manipulator of a number of his young female students, leaving them in various states of confusion, distress, shame, etc. This included destroying a marriage, and, in turn, destroying the woman in question's ability to visit her own children.

When I brought this up to my boss, the public relations director of the school, he said he could give me no easy answer about it. He never told me to be quiet about it, because he agreed it was a problem. On the other hand, he pointed out that the school would be severely hit with scandal and misfortune if such a high-profile person was revealed to be abusing his position. I agreed. I loved my school.

I have never seemed to get away from the Balance Sheet paradox. It seems to be something that has always dogged my life, demanding from me some sort of committed stance. Can we have and approve both: the sacred and the profane in the same person, good and bad wrapped up in equal measures? Can we love the good and ignore or condemn the bad? Or are there certain absolutes or lines that, once crossed, stains every other act?

And what about the "collateral damage?"


  1. I wonder how Jackson's music will be viewed by people who did not hear it before they knew about his "extremely not awesome" actions.

    Most of the people writing about him fell in love with or at least knew about his music for many years before they knew about his bad acts. Do you think those people give him more leeway?

    If somebody came up to you now and said, "Listen to this new music. It was made by a pedophile, but it's so genius that you will love it anyway," do you think you'd be open-minded about it?

  2. I agree with all of the other examples you mentioned that it's hard to draw a line, but the bad side of MJ involved vulnerable children.

    It's not really that difficult for me to say the praise is over-blown and undeserving.

  3. Anonymous10:15 AM

    Seeing one's idols fallen, or at least tarnished, seems a part of growing up. As a baby Trekkie, my idol was Gene Roddenberry, and the shining example he set as an altruistic, creative visionary. Later, I came to realise what a greedy, lying, backstabbing, self-aggrandising, womanising dirty old man he really was. Remarkably perhaps, my enjoyment and appreciation for the original show hasn't waned, so I suppose it's possible to divorce the creator from their works.
    Just don't line their pockets further if you can help it.

  4. There's a saying that only great people can fail great;y, because we don't give lesser people the opportunity to screw up as badly by giving them as much responsibility.

  5. Regarding "collateral damage": To play devil's advocate, I'd ask how widely you cast your net when searching for culpability. Clearly, the cuckolded husband had more to do with preventing his ex-wife from seeing her kids than the professor did. And why would a married woman allow herself to be seduced by someone in the first place? Are you implying that the seducer had paranormal abilities that allowed him to breach a woman's common sense? How do her choices--and their consequences, whether foreseen or not--factor into your "Balance Sheet"?

    Clearly, when a child is allegedly involved, as in Mr. Jackson's case(s), you also have to wonder what their legal guardian parents were thinking; don't they bear a significant portion of the blame?

    And students who get involved with professors: They're clueless? They are NOT capable of making a reasonable choice when it comes to sleeping with someone? Are you implying that young women are too impressionable and ill-equipped to deal with flattering attention, so it's ALWAYS the guy's fault if there's a negative outcome? I know there are sometimes factors that interfere with someone's capacity to make choices, but that's clearly criminal and should affect the Balance Sheet, regardless of PR issues and controversy. But absent them, don't failed affairs go into the "Life Lessons Hard Won" column?

    Again, just playing Devil's Advocate. Blame's a tough game, 'cause there's often enough to go around.

  6. I'd probably think, "I knew there was a reason I prefer downloading this stuff at home."

  7. Anonymous11:36 AM

    Christians believe that whatever good you do can never change the fact that you did something wrong.

    I think that maybe it's because good and bad is not measured as balancing figures. Maybe it's more like mould... anything touched by wrongdoing is corrupted and defiled.

    Interesting post.

  8. Anonymous11:37 AM

    Fra Filippo Lippi was a great artist and a monk who is said to have been so lustful that "he would give anything to enjoy a woman." Still, his works are considered great works of the era.

    Roosevelt cheated on Eleanor. Martin Luther King plagiarized his PhD dissertation and cheated on his wife. Scores of celebrities engaged in narcissistic practices, child abuse (emotional and/or physical), drug abuse, or just generally being assholes.

    There are several things I bring to this.

    1) An artist may be separated from his work, or his work may be defined by who he is. Almost Famous is a good movie, but the fact that it's the real life story of Cameron Crowe makes it great. Conversely, Chinatown didn't stop being a good movie when Roman Polanski was convicted of statutory rape.

    2) If a rumor is repeated enough, it becomes fact. The widespread acceptance of MJ as a pedophile is a bit troubling in that it often has an aspect of "When did you stop beating your wife?" Actual analysis of the record doesn't really bring you to that conclusion. Looking at the recordings and background, he looks decidedly odd, but I'd hesitate in calling it abuse. And if "weirdness" is a character flaw, I'm not sure it offsets "most popular entertainer since Elvis." Especially when Elvis was so damn weird.

  9. There are a couple of dynamics in play here, I think. On one hand, you have the people who really loved MJ's music, but got turned off of it during all of the scandals in his life. Subconsciously, I think there's a feeling that it's okay to like his music again because he's dead, so there's no risk of him doing anything else that would make us feel guilty for supporting his music. Consequently, people are rediscovering his music... and no matter what you think about him as a person, his music is really, really good.

    On the other, there's a contingent of people that have continued to love MJ in spite of the controversy and accusations (and, in fact, in open denial of them). Those people might have wanted to celebrate him and his music before, but they really couldn't because of all of the weirdness in his later years. People would shout them down immediately: "But he's a pedophile!" "Look at what he's done to himself!" "He's a freak!" But nobody is going to say those things about him immediately following his death, so his fans feel like it's okay to celebrate him openly right now.

  10. I think that this is one of those cases in which we separate the art from the artist.

    It's important. It's like digging more into Van Gogh and finding out how nuts he was. Do we ignore the great contribution he gave to the art world? Of course not.

    "Birth of a Nation" is a racist f-in movie, but it was the father of the feature film, and DW Griffith had vision, despite his obvious flaws. Do we ONLY look at art and artists that we find inoffensive?

    That way sterility lies.

  11. I think the Lewinsky thing is a little different. It's not so much that she was collateral damage, but more like "Who cares?" I felt bad for her because the vast right wing conspiracy was using her for their own agenda. But Clinton and Lewinsky were both adults and I don't care where my president dips his wick or if he dips it at all. I care more about what policies he promotes.

    Which is why I didn't like Clintin as he was simply a decent center-right president without an ounce of liberalism (or at least liberalism with any balls)

  12. "I have never seemed to get away from the Balance Sheet paradox. It seems to be something that has always dogged my life, demanding from me some sort of committed stance."

    It shouldn't. If you don't like something speak out about it. If the guy was having sex with current students, that is an outrageous abuse of power and kind of stupid, as I would think eventually a jilted student might attempt to assert a quid pro quo case against him. Former students out of his class would be fair game.

  13. As a father, I definitely would have blown the whistle on the professor. I think things like narcissism, drug abuse, etc. can be forgiven, but when it comes to children, the lines are drawn.

  14. I would say that in the case of this teacher, he was involved in the selection of students for special programs/scholarship money. I think that constituted a problem, even if we agree that it's "natural" for these affairs to happen.

    In terms of the woman who lost the rights to her kids: she was from a very strict religious household, and her infidelity ended up not only costing her kids but her family. She was literally shunned. And hey, I know that sometimes these things happen; that people from orthodox religious backgrounds fall in love outside their religion and have this happen to them. What I find unforgivable is that this guy knowingly did this, shacked up with her, then continued to come on to other female students; in essence, cheating on the woman who gave up life as she knew it for him.

    In retrospect, I know I should have said something. I told several professors that it was going on. And he even tried it with me. But then you are about to graduate with honors, and you are faced with this situation: do I cause a scandal now, or do I quietly take my degree and split? I chose the latter. Given my experience later on in life, I am fairly convinced that my graduation and transcript would have been impacted had I took this publicly, and that I would have been far more hurt than him.

    But by not standing up to this, I'm sure he continued this pattern, always falling back on all the good he did in order to excuse the rest.

    By contrast, we had another professor who had affairs with students with impunity and publicly engaged in debates as to whether that was unethical. He felt it was NOT unethical. He believed that the idea of sexual harassment was an antiquated social construct created by feminists. He was hated hated hated on campus. But at least he was honest.

    I always like to know who I'm dealing with, not these Jekyll and Hydes hiding under a veil of piety.

  15. I tend to buy into the 'Balance Sheet' model with caveats.

    Bill Clinton is good example. Monica Lewinsky was an adult making her own choices. No doubt, she was profoundly disappointed by Clinton and endured consequences that were out of proportion with what she did. However, she was an adult making a choice with all the relevant facts. Clinton certainly owes her an apology, but she is hardly a victim. The more damaged party is Hillary, but she appears to have made whatever peace she needed with the man she married a long time ago.

    You can put "Faithless Husband" on a scale opposite "Good Steward of the Economy" and weigh them. From where I sit, it is vastly better to have a President who is competent than monogamous. Other people feel differently.

    Conversely, Micheal Jackson is a bad example. What he is accused of having done children is so horrible that you simply cannot weigh it against any good he might have done. By definition, children lack the ability to make adult choices. That is why crimes against them are so uniquely grievous and unforgivable. They really are victims who did not even know they were engaged in risky behavior.

  16. Anonymous3:02 PM

    My view is that the morality of his work and person are seprate, you should feel free to enjoy his works regardless of what he did or didn't do unrelated to the creation of music.

    No amount of good deeds covers up what else you do, and no amount of evil covers up good deeds. All humans have conflicting traits, some more so than others. I personally think that not harming others is more important than how much you contribute to music or the school you work at though.

    Like was said before by others, I don't care where people "dip their wick", but an affair isn't just sex. Affairs are a deep breach of trust. Knowingly having an afair with a married person taints you as well, as you're a knowing participant in the breach of trust. People do fall in love outside their religion or marriage, but if you're unwilling to divorce your spouse openly to start a relationship with the other person then don't get involved.

  17. I enjoyed reading this post. Regardless of the MJ example, and I have yet to read other comments, but it seems as if icons, celebrities, and political figures come with their share of pros and cons which is something we can't escape from. Not one person is the world is flawless and that fact has never been more prevalent in our world. Life and its fine details are provided for the population to see, debate, trash, or praise. Living under a microscope is not fun. Once you decide that you want to be in show business you have to know what comes along with it. It seems to me that just like The Two Corey's, being a child star can screw up your life. Of course, Jackson is in a completely different category but the evils of fame and show biz are the same. I don't like to buy into what the tabloids and US magazine tells us.

    A very thought provoking post that ultimately cannot be answered. The closest I can come to one is that we will never ever know the full details of the contraversies that surrounded Clinton, Nixon, Jackson, Kennedy, and whoever else. I don't think we can judge them without knowing the whole story. When you think of your own personal life and how there are instances when you personally know how a situation unfolded but no one else does, it's almost a powerless feeling. My natural reaction is to expect people in the public eye to "fuck up" and just shake my head in shame. But just because Phil Spector produced some of the most genius music in history doesn't give him the right to shoot an innocent woman. His legacy is pretty much ruined. Clarkson is gone so we'll never know exactly how it all went down. With our lawyers relying on loopholes and euphemisms it just clouds all of these situations even more.

  18. Jay Amabile said: "With our news sources relying on sensationalism and euphemisms it just clouds all of these situations even more."

    Fixed that for you.

  19. I don't think you can apply some sort of ballance sheet to a person's life. The idea that x ammount of good can offset y ammount of bad is just kinda silly, and in an odd way slightly offensive to me. There's no possible way you can quantify someone's good or evil works, and why would anyone want to anyway? life is a precious gift, and anytime someone dies it's ok to mourn them.

  20. I think the "Balance sheet" for Jackson is a tricky question, at least for accusations of child molestation. It's never been proven that he ever did anything wrong - once he settled out of court and the second time he was found not guilty. So how do you balance the known good with an uncertain bad?

  21. I must admit, I was rather puzzled by the second incident. Why on earth would a parent leave his or her child alone with MJ after that? Unless he/she was actively seeking an opportunity to sue him for a quick nuisance settlement?


    Interesting read

  23. This is why balance sheets are not a good idea. Often you're comparing two different things, measuring degrees celcius of the bathwater against kilograms of flax. Totally disparate things.

    Jackson is simply too complex to place on a scale. It would be like trying to measure a gaseous liquid on a scale made for solids. Too many factors are in play, and each is metered differently from each observer.

  24. Every human's life is a balance between the good they do and the bad (there are exceptions, but they are few and far between). All you can do, particularly when they are dead, is celebrate the good and deplore the bad (after a suitable period -- let those who loved the dead one grieve).

    As for your professor -- the problem there is the power dynamic. A professor should be allowed to date students (in fact, one of my wife's best friends has been married for over a decade to a man who was her professor at one point), but NOT if she is in his class or in a position where he can withhold things like scholarships, etc. from her.

  25. Simple answer: no. Bad or illegal individual doings don't balance out a famous person's cultural influence. The reason? Because plenty of famous people are good people as well. If being a dangerous looney were intrinsically a part of being famous, then maybe one would have a case. Since it's not, we shouldn't apply one standard to worthy famous people and another standard to schmucky ones.

  26. Devyn Rodriguez7:59 AM

    It really comes down to political correctness sometimes. If you say something bad about Michael Jackson after he dies, most people will view you as kind of a dick.

    Michael was a musical genius, but as history shows the line between a genius and a madman is often blurred or non-existent.

  27. As far as how people will view him in the future, well, he'll just settle in with the rest of the crowd: Lewis Carol, Fatty Arbuckle, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes, etc. All of them unquestionably the pinnacles of their fields, all of them tarnished by lives of suspicious or disappointing conduct. And yet, they always somehow avoid being diminished. We manage to respect them regardless of their failings. Sometimes because of them.

    Part of this is because this whole perspective we're looking at this from is wrong. A balance sheet assumes dualism. Or, indeed, the assumption of balance. Neither of those things are necessarily true at all. When tallying up good deeds vs bad deeds; moral actions vs immoral actions; the big picture vs the small picture.. we'll always find exceptions. In fact, I'd venture so far as to say there are more exceptions to the rule than there are those that follow rule - that seemingly predictable notion of good or evil. We're just more complicated than that, and probably don't deserve to be viewed in that light. Least of all by ourselves: the most biased observers of humanity you could ever find.

  28. Anonymous9:33 PM

    It's a ponderance, certainly. I just don't know.