Alec Baldwin is a talented actor who also happens to be extremely intelligent, verbally dexterous, and politically active on the left. And he has a history of getting in trouble for very public (or publicized) displays of anger, once leaving a rant on his 11-year-old daughter’s voicemail in which he called her a “rude, thoughtless little pig.” More recently, he’s been blowing up at the swarms of paparazzi that seem to spontaneously generate in his presence at the mere prospect of feeding on his anger. As his outbursts have escalated, Baldwin has gotten himself into increasing levels of trouble for violating current speech codes. For calling a photographer a “cocksucking fag” in a blowup caught on video, and another journalist a “fucking little bitch” and “toxic queen” on twitter, Baldwin has been roundly condemned as a “bigot” and “homophobe,” despite the fact that he has been a vocal supporter of gay rights.
In making these condemnations, several highly-interested observers have advanced the thesis that Baldwin ought to be judged not by his position on gay rights but by the profane insults he hurls during fits of rage. To Andrew Sullivan, these outbursts “reveal who he actually is” – which is to say a homophobic bigot who has “no right to pretend in any way to be a tolerant liberal ….” Similarly, Ta-Nehesi Coates seems to infer that Baldwin does not believe that “LGBTQ human beings are equal,” whatever his purported views on gay marriage. According to Coates, Baldwin must have some self-interested motive, amounting to the sentiment “let them fags marry” even though “I don’t like you.”
These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it. That they might associate it with weakness and submission on the one hand, and on the other with the strength and courage required to face discrimination and disapproval. That they might be personally repelled by homosexuality yet be ashamed of that feeling, and meanwhile an ardent supporter of gay rights. They might have all of these feelings, incidentally, while themselves being gay. These sorts of mixed emotions – not merely about homosexuality, but about everything – are in fact the psychological norm. Our impulses are often at war with each other and with our considered beliefs: we do not have shiny, neatly-structured spirits in which our rational and irrational natures happily collaborate.
The psychological norm also includes having all sorts of darker feelings – including violent impulses – that would get us in trouble if we were to act on them. The neat trick of civilization is that it prevents most of us from acting on our more destructive impulses, most of the time. When we’re not simply repressing them or gratifying them in fantasy, we’re sublimating them: into words, into work, and even into love. Meanwhile, we do not condemn people merely for having unsavory impulses, even murderous ones. We can be fairly certain that Baldwin wanted at some level to kill (as would have I) the harasser that he instead insulted (insulting people is itself a form of sublimation, albeit not a very advanced one). Yet no one bandies about the term “murderophilia,” or make the absurd claim that someone’s having murderous impulses must discredit their avowed belief that murder is wrong.
It is just as ludicrous to condemn people for being afraid of or repulsed by homosexuality as it is to condemn them for having violent impulses. Freud thought that homophobia and same sex attraction (which is not the same thing as homosexuality per se) were universal and mutually implicating (a man, for instance, might be both repelled by and fascinated by homosexuality because he associates it with the both terrifying and thrilling prospect of submitting and being penetrated). Whether or not you like such associations or agree with Freud, you cannot condemn people merely for being afraid of something, or for having certain feelings or associations: what counts are their considered thoughts and behaviors. The bigot who gets on TV to tell you that homosexuality ought to be against the law does not belong in the same category as a vocal advocate of gay rights who has not purified himself entirely of negative feelings about homosexuality. Homophobic feelings are no more of a choice than homosexuality itself.
Further, such condemnations are entirely counterproductive, psychologically and politically. Sublimation is a good strategy for dealing with destructive impulses. But complete repression is the worst possible strategy, one that will make a person or a society (not to mention its public discourse) sick. The worst thing we can do is to pretend that we have purified ourselves of our darker impulses: that we don’t have a violent bone in our bodies; that we harbor no ill-will toward humanity and are entirely free of misanthropy in general; and that we are free of more specific misanthropies predicated on our differences with humanity’s various sub-anthropies – that we harbor no misogyny, no misandry, no racism, and no homophobia. This is a self-deception, one predicated on a misanthropy that is more virulent and dehumanizing for its remaining unacknowledged: it allows us to say it is only they and them who have such feelings; only those bastards over there – those racists, those misogynists, those homophobes, those bigots. Not me, the tolerant one. The habit of outing and angrily condemning bigots is motivated by precisely the same impulse as bigotry itself: to identify a segment of humanity that we can justifiably revile – if not for their race or sexual proclivities, for their racism or homophobia.
None of this is to argue that Baldwin doesn’t deserve a certain amount of censure for his blow-ups, because these fall into the category of quasi-action rather than the realm of mere thought and feeling. He deserves just the amount of censure that we typically accord to people who, in fits of anger, level profane epithets and threats at others, no matter how badly they’ve been provoked; and an added measure of censure for using language that many will see as degrading to a particular group. But that’s where the censure ought to end: there is absolutely no evidence that Baldwin’s use of certain words makes him a “bigot” in spite of his longstanding public support of gay rights.
And while I’ve speculated on the universality of homophobia, I doubt that someone’s profane outbursts very often tell us much about their personal feelings toward the images that underlie profane metaphors. Indeed, profanity is highly metaphorical: when I say “shit” as I stub my toe, I do not think of feces; nor could you expect coprophiliacs not to use the word “shit” in negative contexts. When I call someone a “motherfucker,” I am very unlikely to conjure up, in either of us, an actual image of incest; nor with “cocksucker,” an image of felatio. Profanity is highly metaphorical in the sense that it often swaps out meanings entirely for pure expressions of negative emotion. These are words that one habitually uses to express certain emotions in certain situations, and in many cases their literal meanings are vestigial and irrelevant. It is entirely legitimate to say of such words, “they offend me, because I cannot but pay attention to their original meaning, however much you might have forgotten it.” But it is entirely illegitimate – and extraordinarily dishonest – to conclude that a user of such words has their original meanings in mind, when we know they very often do not.
Some slurs are different, of course, and are more obviously meant to insult a particular person by way of disparaging a larger group. But it is still very difficult even in these cases to say anything about a person’s actual values from their use of certain insults or slurs. That’s because the nature of profane insults is that they are designed to be … insulting to others. Which is to say, they are predicated not on my values, but on what I believe to be the values of my target. You insult my mother not because you actually have any beliefs or feelings about my mother, but because you assume I love her and want to irritate me. You call me a “fag,” regardless of your feelings about homosexuality, because you assume it will enrage me (for a potential variety of conflicting reasons). You can say that such manipulative use of these words reflects a certain insensitivity to the sensibilities of the disparaged groups in question; and again, it is legitimate to object to their use on the grounds that they offend; but the notion that every time I take offense, the cause of this offense must be someone else’s outright bigotry, is to indulge a persecutory delusion.
There is much talk recently about the role of reading literature in facilitating empathy. I think this puts the case too generally: one of literature’s great virtues is that it can be adequate to human complexity in a way that we often do not have the time or the courage to be. The person who hurts us is, to us, regularly just another asshole: if we were to understand what makes them tick, and why they do what they do, we’d both hurt less and have a chance of being helpful to them and ourselves. That’s an especially important trick to know when dealing with those we count as friends and family, because we cannot simply hit them with words like “bigot” and then run away from them every time they offend us, unless we want to be lonely Our political discourse would be transformed, enormously amplified, if it were to be infected by just a drop of the same spirit. Baldwin has a much better excuse for his outburst than Sullivan and Coates do for theirs: his is a bit of profanity, issued in anger and meant for a specific target. Theirs are attempts at reflection, meant for public consumption, and fail because their authors cannot disengage themselves from their initial emotional response (in the same way conflicted homophobes, for example, might disengage themselves from their aversion to homosexuality when arguing in favor of gay rights). I enjoy (and will continue to enjoy) the thoughts of Sullivan and Coates on various subjects; but they also deserve the appropriate measure of censure, when their posts degenerate into the mere transcription of un-reflected outrage that characterizes so much of today’s public discourse.
The final irony here is that the open season on Alec Baldwin is predicated in part on the fact that he belongs to a certain group whom many have no qualms making the objects of their dehumanizing impulses. You might object to a friend’s use of the word “fag” in an angry outburst. But you’d have to be remarkably harsh and punitive to immediately end your friendship with him, demand that his employer fire him, and ask the whole world to join you in condemning and ostracizing him. But this is precisely the sort of madness to which some think they are entitled in relation to celebrities: they must repay us our adoration by serving as facile objects of our unforgiving ire. Sullivan and Coates are not even capable of thinking coherently about Baldwin as a complex human being with conflicting impulses and thoughts, a constellation of better and worse qualities. In fact, Coates’ absurd speculation that Baldwin must secretly detest gay people while supporting gay rights out of some sort of cynical self-interest is frankly paranoid – the psychological version of a conspiracy theory. If you want to understand our relation to celebrity, one that is often legitimately psychotic, you could hardly do better than to wrap your head around the significance of the paranoid-schizoid position and splitting.
So when Baldwin claims that the “country’s obsession with the private lives of famous people is tragic,” he really captures the essence both of the ongoing harassment of him by tabloid journalists and the condemnation of him by the internet’s self-righteous scolds. The behavior of paparazzi has actual consequences, and actually screws up the lives of real human beings: celebrities are not of the same stuff as the fantasies they facilitate. If someone were to torture you in this way, you might go a little mad. But by all means, make sure that when you do have a temporary fit of insanity, you bowdlerize your profanity for public consumption: because this moment – despite our never having met you, much less having been subjected to the innumerable facets that compose your character – will tell us precisely who you “really” are.
And remember: we’ll be making this remarkably inhumane judgment only because we care, ever so deeply, about humanity, and about the harm you’re doing to it with whatever words you utter in the fit of agony created by our own incessant prodding.
– Wes Alwan