In September, New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced that Placido Domingo had withdrawn from all future engagements there, following allegations of sexual harassment made by several women, including a soprano who said he grabbed her bare breast.
Domingo’s burnished tenor and acting ability have thrilled generations of opera lovers. At the age of 78, and after 51 consecutive years of performing at the Met, it was probably time for him to hang up his boots anyway.
However, what are art patrons to make of his compulsory retirement?
Following the Met’s announcement, two friends, a man and a woman who both love the opera, shared messages about the incident.
The man wrote that “the primary dilemma is between a deontological understanding of ethics, the standards of which are valid across time and space, and a more context-bounded one.”
Even if society stopped short of embracing radical ethical relativism, they should not ignore completely the context in which the alleged behavior took place, he argued.
Moreover, the public should acknowledge that ethical consciousness — what people consider to be ethical standards — changes over time, even if some core principles do not.
Even if outsiders have a non-contextual understanding of ethics, “I wonder whether the accused persons have no rights at all. Anonymous accusations can destroy lives,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, the female friend, pointed out that Domingo has several problems. For starters, there are a lot of complainants, and he was in a position of real authority in a business notorious for abuses of power.
Worst of all, “the present atmosphere, especially in the United States, is not far off a lynch mob,” she said.
For her, differences of opinion on such matters are generational and geographical.
“Our generation — you and I ... have an open mind and are wary of mass judgments,” she wrote. However, “our daughters’ generation can’t get enough of it.”
And whereas she believes that Domingo’s career prospects are dim “in the US, Australia and, I suspect, the United Kingdom, where #MeToo has serious traction,” she “expect[s] Milan and Berlin to carry on as usual.”
Moreover, she added, such behavior was accepted until relatively recently, and Domingo himself was no doubt actively pursued by women working in the same business.
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Ultimately, as with other flawed stars, such as the conductor Herbert von Karajan, “we keep watching genius at work and separate what may now be classified as ‘no go.’”
These friends’ comments raise a number of interesting moral issues. In particular, should the public judge individuals’ past behavior by current standards? A 24-year-old male research assistant, for one, is in no doubt.
“What Domingo did was as morally wrong then as it is now, and he knew it,” the man said. “The fact that it was socially acceptable then for men to grope women is no defense. Our generation is just not as hypocritical as yours.”
Nonetheless, the key question here is whether Domingo indeed “knew it.” If an individual knew that what they were doing was wrong, then they should be held to account, even if belatedly.
However, if their actions were customary in their place and time, we should not judge them too harshly.
For example, students in the UK have demanded the removal of statues of, or rooms named after, famous 19th-century figures such as Cecil Rhodes (for being an imperialist), Francis Galton (a eugenicist) and Marie Stopes (who wanted to limit the fertility of the poor). Should we now press the delete button on all of them, like communist regimes did when erasing mentions of purged leaders or airbrushing them from photographs?
Some will argue that they are not deleting such people from history, but merely refusing to honor them. Yet, it is essential to elevate them, if only so that students can ask: “Why did we honor them for holding views of this kind?”
That question is the start of historical understanding. Unless we are prompted to enter into the frame of mind of Rhodes, Stopes and others, society will learn no history, only moral lessons.
The question of power is complicated. Powerful people, who are usually men, abuse their positions; but power also is attractive, especially if allied to charm and good looks, as in Domingo’s case, and others might see it as useful for their own career.
Although those with power should be held accountable for how they use it, society also should recognize elements of a trade-off: Both parties might be seeking different things from a relationship whose rules are not clear.
Short of abolishing power, these trade-offs are part of life.
The second correspondent raised the important question of whether the public can separate works of genius from the opinions or behavior of their creator. Is the appreciation of Richard Wagner’s music lessened because he was anti-Semitic? Is our enjoyment of Alice in Wonderland spoiled by the thought that Lewis Carroll’s friendship with Alice Liddell might have been pedophilic?
Sensible people have little difficulty in separating the work from the person.
However, that goes against the grain of much contemporary thinking, which insists that a work of art must be judged with regard to the moral behavior of its creator. This method of assessment belittles any art whose creator offends contemporary sensibilities, however valuable the art may be.
A hugely important issue, and one directly relevant to the Domingo case, is that of harm. How far can society legitimately extend the harm criterion? To inflict violence on someone is to harm them: Rape is beyond the pale.
However, harm goes beyond physical violence. There is limited truth in the old adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Words can wound. The most hurtful memories of childhood (and much of adult life) are words that cut to the quick. That is why proponents of hate speech must be held accountable.
On the other hand, I have a fuzzy memory of being “groped” as a teenager in a movie theater. The experience certainly did not traumatize me. In dealing with minor episodes of unwanted attention, therefore, more resilience and less blame seems to be the right attitude.
However, such a view is increasingly at odds with the spirit of the times.
Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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