The Badness of the Good, the Goodness of the Bad

HoopoeMargaret and I have fallen into a number of conversations recently involving the problem of mixed personae: the status of benefactions from donors whose character has been subjected to question, the exquisite work of artists who perpetrate horrors, the useability of ideas proposed by morally compromised thinkers, and also the grim side of exemplars held up by the Church, or by culture, as heroes and saints. Just on a quick run, we came up with Cecil Rhodes, Woodrow Wilson, Eric Gill, Martin Heidegger, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., St Junípero Serra, John Howard Yoder — and that was just a moment’s effort.

Our interest concerns not so much the justification of particular accusations as the relation of the alleged behaviour to the reception of the hero/villain’s legacy (on one hand), and the rhetoric of accusation and defence that these allegations inspire. Though we know to expect that almost everyone has flaws as well as strengths, those whose strengths “we” particularly admire seem to elicit rationalisations and justifications; when those of whom “we” disapprove seem to have committed similar malfeasances, we show less forgiveness. When our hero has a tainted side, we insist that their ideas/art can be distinguished from their moral failings; when scandal attends an opponent, their teachings/works must be purged.

If everyone is a microcosmic mixed economy of vice and virtue, how should we go about dealing with extreme examples? Can we, in good conscience, appreciate the thought or art or music or literature or political action of someone we have reason to think was a persistent sinner? How do we answer those whose lives have been particularly affected (directly or indirectly) but the sorts of malfeasance that these figures practised, if those affected charge us with glorifying their oppressor? How should we frame a general account of the relation of conduct to ideological production?

Once we clear our writing agendas of current projects (“the resurrection of the body”, in one case, and further boring hermeneutical reflection on the other), we’d love to work on this together.

4 thoughts on “The Badness of the Good, the Goodness of the Bad

  1. That sounds like an excellent topic to explore. I hope you do. I’ve struggled to articulate why I allow one person to have a longer rope than another. A book on that topic would be quite helpful.

  2. This is a most needed project and I cannot think of two better scholars to take it on. I have observed these dynamics in the church and in the workplace and these situations cause me to reflect about the efficacy of the sacrament not being dependent upon the purity of the priest and redemption, healing, justice and forbearance. Then I get tangled up in the skein of theological yarn… If you’d like any conversation partners, please put my name in the hat.

  3. Solomon and David spring to mind immediately. (Not to mention me – but I am not famous!)

    I think there is a tendency too to put aside the conflicts as one ages. So for instance one might have a significant change of mind on the homeless when one has raised a child to nearly 40 with significant mental instability, or one might come to accept something one formerly found distasteful.

  4. Fascinating topic which I hope you will both pursue. You won’t lack examples, but I reckon that there is a fair literature on the case of Richard Wagner, for instance.

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