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English review - Blame it on the Bogeyman

From the rustle of the audience entering the auditorium—finding a place to sit in the close-knit setting of the evening’s discussion some concerns were already being voiced: “can we listen to Michael Jackson if his music does not reflect his personal life?” Or the other way around: “what about hip-hop artists who rap about ‘hoes and bitches,’ but do not act the lyrics out in their personal lives?” As the voices quieted down, the atmosphere became a little bit tense, probably due to the pronoun “I” in the discussion’s title: can I still listen to Michael Jackson? Indeed, this discussion had a direct effect on everybody in the audience; everybody had a skin in the game, something to lose or gain from its conclusions.

The hosts introduced the two experts who had come to speak: political philosopher Dr. Katrine Smiet, who specializes in feminist philosophy and gender studies and who recently became a lecturer in philosophy at the Radboud University, and Sven Schaepkens, a cultural scientist and lecturer in ethics and political philosophy, currently working on a PhD project at the Eramsus MC in Rotterdam.

The hosts of the evening, Anouta de Groot and Dave Willems, took the floor and posed the dilemma: (A) I can listen to Michael Jackson, or (B) I am going to boycott his music. One member of the audience immediately wanted to restate the question: “why can’t we make it more personal and ask ourselves: how do I relate to a violent neighbor?” De Groot took this question to clarify what is really at stake in this dilemma: what is our responsibility as a consumer in relation to the personal lives of a public figure? This directly evoked response from the audience. One person said that if a consumer buys Michael Jackson’s records, then Jackson gains from that financially, which in turn would enable him to continue to commit crimes. Throughout the discussion, Jackson mostly figured as an example of the more general issue of sexual violence in the entertainment industry.

The audience was asked to list the negative effects of either decision, A or B. If we choose to boycott Michael Jackson, what are the consequences? One important point that came up was that you can choose not to listen to the music, but you cannot choose not to like it. Someone else disagreed and said that the controversy about Michael Jackson, whether he was innocent or not, had ruined his experience of the music; he could no longer enjoy it. Another comment was that Michael Jackson was only one example and that if one chose to boycott him, it would be very hypocritical not also to stop consuming the art of many other musicians. In fact, in the end, you would not be able to listen to almost any music anymore, because somewhere in the structure between the artwork and the consumer, there would be a middleman, e.g. a producer or an agent, who had done something wrong.

The reversal of this sentiment was picked up on by Schaepkens as he started his statement by playing “A B C” by the Jackson Five. Michael Jackson was only twelve years old when he sang that song and at that age the boy had done nothing wrong. If we are going to boycott Michael’s music, should we also stop listening to the Jackson Five? What did the younger version of Michael Jackson have to do with it and why should we also boycott his brothers? Schaepkens made the point that it is very problematic to treat an artist as one coherent unit and that Michael Jackson has many roles, personas and identities, none of which can be reduced to another. Furthermore, on the side of the consumer, Schaepkens argued for individual freedom. If I am sitting in my car listening to Michael Jackson on the highway, there is no point of turning to another station. But what about the radio disc jockey who put the record on in the first place? Schaepkens claimed that there is a difference between private and public consumption and that figures with reach and authority, like a disc jockey, should make responsible choices about whose music they play and how they propagate the artist.

Smiet explained what she felt was the main problematic of both decisions. She said that if we choose to continue to listen to Michael Jackson’s music, we implicitly comply with the system that enables artists to commit their crimes. If we choose, on the other hand, to boycott Michael Jackson’s music, we take ourselves out of the system, but still allow it to continue. In other words, in both cases, we wash our hands of the situation. Instead of arguing about whether we should retrospectively censor artists, Smiet stated that we should try to prevent these things from happening again by changing the system itself. There was some confusion from the audience, for they did not understand why listening to Michael Jackson would mean that they are supporters of pedophilia. Smiet made a clear distinction between supporting pedophilia and turning a blind eye. Of course, listening to Michael Jackson would never automatically mean that you condone or “like” child abuse, but it might be one cog in the machine that enables child abuse to happen in the music industry.

Nearing the end of the discussion, the audience was asked to write down, firstly, whether they would continue listening to Michael Jackson; secondly on what value they had based their decision; thirdly, what negative consequence they were willing to face in this decision; and fourthly, what they would try to do to minimize negative effects. It turned out that almost everybody would continue to listen to Michael Jackson. For some, they felt they were able to distinguish the artist from the art. For others, Michael Jackson was innocent until proven guilty. In their final statements, both Schaepkens and Smiet argued for the importance of discussion, nuance and individual responsibility.

This report was written by Ninge Engelen, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.