Anthony Weiner, a former New York Congressman, recently pleaded guilty to sexting a minor after a series of scandals starting in mid-2011. He’ll face up to ten years in prison and must register as a sex offender. His political career is over, and of course, rightfully so.
John Searle, an established figure in the field of philosophy and professor at UC Berkeley, was recently sued for sexual assault by university alum Joanna Ong, who worked as Professor Searle’s research assistant from July-September 2016. After the lawsuit was made public, articles from Buzzfeed News and the Daily Cal reported that Ong’s suit is not the first time Searle has been accused by female students of sexual harassment or sexist conduct.
It’s unclear if or when the lawsuit will go to trial and what measures the university will take, if any. But unlike in Weiner’s case, the possibility of Searle facing a shattered reputation seems low. Weiner will be remembered for his crime; Searle will be remembered for his philosophy.
What, then, is the difference between Weiner and Searle? Both are accomplished men who have committed crimes of similar caliber (albeit Searle has not been convicted, but his sexist values and actions are relatively well-known). This situation brings to light a trend in our society about how we handle issues like this. When someone, usually a man, of great intellect or creativity commits a crime, we are often willing to let it slide.
Consider Chris Brown, who brutally assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009 and pleaded guilty to felony assault. He has also been accused of other violent behavior, including abusing actress and model Karrueche Tran during their relationship and threatening her since their split. Despite this, he continues to produce successful music, tour, and maintain an active social media presence. He won Best R&B Album at the 2012 Grammy Awards, as well as several BET and Billboard Music Awards since the incident with Rihanna. Why? Why do people continue to celebrate this felon and recognize him as an artist?
It’s true that many believe Brown should not have the high profile status and wealth he maintains, despite having been given punishment that, theoretically, fit the crime. In a special article written for the LA Times, Ernest Hardy wrote that when Seth Rogen hosted the Independent Spirit Awards in February 2012, he joked, “At the Grammys, you can literally beat the [expletive] out of a nominee, and be asked to perform twice.” Hardy reports, “At Rogen’s remark, the crowd at the Spirit Awards erupted in applause. Twitter nearly went into meltdown trying to keep up with all the cyber high-fives transmitted. The reaction showed that the public, evidently unlike the programmers of the Grammy Awards show, weren’t ready to forget Brown’s violent behavior.”
Hardy goes on to suggest that black artists are primarily haunted by their past, while white artists like Charlie Sheen and Glen Campbell, both accused of domestic abuse by former partners, remain relatively unscathed and continue to have successful careers. While Hardy’s point isn’t one to be dismissed, I’d argue that despite the relative difference in public forgiveness, it’s still quite high for people like Chris Brown and John Searle compared to others like Anthony Weiner. They are still celebrated as prominent figures in music and philosophy despite their wrongful actions.
Some may say that we should move on from the past. Chris Brown served his sentence, maybe he’s grown and changed and matured. But then why won’t Anthony Weiner be able to hold elected office once he’s released from prison? Think of it like this: a blue collar or middle class worker is convicted of a felony. He does his time, but when he’s released from jail, he struggles to find work that he’s interested in, as most job applications ask you to declare whether or not you’ve been convicted of a felony. He’s lost the respect of society, and it’s likely that he will never be able to get even close to the life he had before he was convicted.
Some may believe this to be just. If someone commits a felony, he damn well shouldn’t be respected by society. He shouldn’t be able to just pick up where he left off. But then why do we allow people like Chris Brown and John Searle to continue to do what made them wealthy and famous in the first place?
The difference here is in the product, or what a person puts out into the world. There’s always another accountant or laborer or teacher and even lawyer or politician. But artists and intellectuals are seen almost as if they have “gifts,” or whatever that special thing is that makes them innovative and creative and profound. If we disgraced Searle or Brown, we’d lose access to their intellect and artistry that are iconic to our time and culture. What’s more, their work is seen as completely separate from their personal values and actions, whereas the work of others like politicians and everyday workers is seen as more closely tied to their morals. Just because John Searle sexually assaulted a woman doesn’t mean he hasn’t made some of the greatest contributions to contemporary philosophy in the past 50 years, right? And if we no longer studied and celebrated him, we’d lose those advancements. That’s worth forgiving. That is what we are willing to overlook heinous crimes for — we get something unique. Something we are afraid to lose. Something not everyone can produce.
These standards made so explicit might make one feel uneasy, and for good reason. It seems we give some product, like Searle’s Chinese Room theory or Chris Brown’s album F.A.M.E, more value than the victims of their abuse, when we compare the way we view these figures’ crimes as opposed to everyone else’s. Is this an issue we need to address? And if we did begin disgracing these figures for crimes, what would the affect be on intellectual or artistic history? Would this be necessary to give victims justice, or are legal proceedings like what Brown went through enough? Brown continues to ask the public to let go of the past and move on, allow him to express himself as an artist without the label of woman-beater. But though he may bear that label, and though he may have fully well been convicted of a crime, he has what Anthony Weiner and almost every other run-of-the-mill convict will never have again.