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#MeToo and Don Giovanni

The recent sexual-harassment allegations against renowned opera singer Plácido Domingo have rekindled the debate as to whether today's ethical standards should apply across time and space. Differences of opinion on such matters often are both generational and geographical.

LONDON – In September, New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced that Plácido Domingo had withdrawn from all future engagements there, following allegations of sexual harassment made by several women, including a soprano who said he grabbed her bare breast.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. But what are we to make of his compulsory retirement?

Following the Met’s announcement, I received messages from two friends (a man and a woman) who share my love of opera. 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 we stop short of embracing radical ethical relativism, he argued, we should not ignore completely the context in which the alleged behavior took place. Moreover, we should acknowledge that ethical consciousness – what people consider to be ethical standards – changes over time, even if some core principles do not. And, he concluded, even if we have a non-contextual understanding of ethics, “I wonder whether the accused persons have no rights at all. Anonymous accusations can destroy lives.”

My female friend, meanwhile, pointed out that Domingo has several problems. For starters, there are a lot of complainants, and he was in a position of real power in a business notorious for power abuses. Worst of all, she said, “the present atmosphere, especially in the United States, is not far off a lynch mob.”

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. But “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. 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.’”

My friends’ comments raise a number of interesting moral issues. In particular, should we judge individuals’ past behavior by current standards? My 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,” he says. “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.”

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The key question here, however, 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. But 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 nineteenth-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 we 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, we will learn no history, only moral lessons.

The question of power is very complicated. Powerful people (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 may see it as useful for their own career. Although those with power should be held accountable for how they use it, we also should recognize elements of a tradeoff: both parties may be seeking different things from a relationship whose rules are not clear. Short of abolishing power, these tradeoffs are part of life.

My second correspondent raises the important question of whether one can separate works of genius from the opinions or behavior of their creator. Is one’s appreciation of Wagner’s music lessened because he was anti-Semitic? Or 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. But 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 we legitimately extend the harm criterion? To inflict violence on someone is to harm them: rape is beyond the pale. But harm goes beyond physical violence. I have never believed 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 my childhood (and much of my adult life) are words that cut to the quick. That’s why I am in favor of holding proponents of hate speech to account.

On the other hand, I have only a fuzzy memory of being “groped” as a teenager in a cinema. The experience certainly did not traumatize me. In dealing with minor episodes of unwanted attention, therefore, more resilience and less blame seems to me to be the right attitude. But such a view is increasingly at odds with the spirit of the times.

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