Like any case in which its ultimately one person’s word against another’s, there’s no real way of knowing if the allegations of sexual molestation are true. Michael Jackson’s family has called HBO’s two-part documentary Leaving Neverland a “public lynching” and has characterized accusers James Safechuck and Wade Robson as proven liars whose allegations have already been dealt with by a court of law. Robson, meanwhile standing by his claims, has expressed empathy and compassion for the hordes of Jackson fans who have come to his defense on social media: “Even though it happened to me I still couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing, so I understand.”
The first question worth considering after watching the Michael Jackson documentary is whether or not you believe victims. Do you tend to err on the side of believing victims, or does it depend on who is being accused? Do you believe that staunch conservative congressman Roy Moore sexually molested a 14-year-old girl? Do you believe that Neil deGrasse Tyson raped a fellow classmate while in graduate school? Do you believe Woody Allen molested his own daughter?
Let’s say you do believe Jackson’s accusers — I do — especially after watching Leaving Neverland. You might initially have a visceral reaction the next time you hear a Michael Jackson song crop up on Pandora and ultimately decide to skip to the next track. Do you have an ethical or moral obligation to skip the track, though? Are you condoning child molestation simply by listening to the music? Assuming you find money or fame to be intrinsically good things, does the money and fame generated by your patronage in essence allow the criminal (or in this case his estate) to live the good life while the victims are cast aside?
Shortly after Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. were all ousted by the MeToo movement, the New York Times reached out to feminist scholar Camille Paglia (whose 2017 conversation with Jordan Peterson I personally found nauseating) for her perspective on what we as an audience are to do with art made by artists who do bad things. “The artist as a person should certainly be subject to rebuke, censure, or penalty for unacceptable actions in the social realm,” she said. “But art, even when it addresses political issues, occupies an abstract realm beyond society.” Her conclusion makes sense to me when I rewatched Katelyn Ohashi perform one of the most flawless floor routines of all time to a playlist inspired by Jackson’s oeuvre; Jackson’s incredible work is part of another performer’s incredible work, and I can’t help but find the entire performance to be a net positive thing. Would I feel that way, though, if Ohashi’s performance had occurred a week after Leaving Neverland? Several years after Leaving Neverland? If I were a victim of sexual abuse, would I feel the same way? I don’t know.
In the same Times article, director Judd Apatow emphasized that we should focus less on the fate of an artist’s work. “All our energy should be with the victims,” he said. “What happened to them? How did people handle this? What could we do going forward to support them in a productive way?” It reminds me of when I asked who I felt was my most socially progressive friend whether or not I should go to a concert of a reggae artist whose lyrics reflected his shameless and even violent homophobia; I don’t have a firm grasp on Jamaican Patois, so I was a fan long before I recognized that his lyrics were controversial. The artist was even purportedly denied a visa to the U.S. for several years due to his views.
My friend shrugged her shoulders and suggested I go anyway, but to take the opportunity to donate money to an LGBTQ organization if I really wanted to make a difference. I donated to The Trevor Project, but didn’t end up going to the concert at that time; I didn’t rule it out for the future, though, and definitely still listen to the music. I am thinking back on that moment today as I ask myself what I am willing to take from Michael Jackson’s complicated legacy. As I ponder all of these questions, the only sure thing I know to do right now is to make a donation to RAINN so that I can actively express my support for victims of sexual violence and abuse.
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Whether you're a survivor or friends or family of one, we're here to listen 24/7. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is free, confidential, and anonymous. Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit https://t.co/j9dQGwplI2. pic.twitter.com/TPZ2dJdf7k
— RAINN (@RAINN) March 9, 2019