Harshly Drawn Lines
I have a lot of conversations these days about the anger and polarization that seems to be increasingly ubiquitous in our culture. Whether it’s the toxic spaces of online “discourse” or the high school gym where parents divide over COVID restrictions and how they affect school sports or the radioactive topics of race, gender, and sexuality, so many people seem to be really, really annoyed and really, really determined to sort people into the categories of “righteous” and “unrighteous” according to where they stand on these issues. I can’t recall a time where people have seemed so divided, where so many conversations seem to have tripwires around every bend, where normal interactions our neighbours carry with them a level of suspicion and anxiety that would have once been almost unimaginable.
There are many reasons for this, of course. There is “traditional” media, obviously, with its massive financial incentives to keep us inflamed and outraged. There is this pandemic that has driven us all on to our screens and further isolated us from one another. There are the deleterious effects of social media and living more of our lives online than off (Richard Beck wrote a great piece today about the loss of “local imagination” that comes when the issues on the internet become the only ones we care about and define ourselves by). There are also just the basic human impulses toward tribalism, connection, and belonging. We all want to find “our people” and to find some broader story to attach ourselves to. We can’t live without something to give our lives meaning, even as we cast aside some of the more compelling and coherent narratives that have guided our species for millennia. For better or (far more often, it seems) for worse, this is who we are.
I recently read a fascinating interview with actor Kenneth Branagh in the New York Times (Branagh has done all kinds of impressive highbrow acting, but I sort of like him best as Kurt Wallander from the Swedish crime drama). The NYT interviewer, David Marchese, is talking about Branagh’s recent film Belfast, which explores a young boy’s experience in “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland, in the 1960s. He’s interested in our human propensity to sort people into categories of “good” and “bad,” and confesses that he has struggled to avoid this temptation himself in thinking about Branagh’s film. The music for the film was done by Van Morrison, and Marchese evidently isn’t a fan of some of Van’s opinions on vaccinations and public health initiatives:
We’re increasingly obsessed with trying to figure out in which bucket to place people: us or them, good person or not. And I haven’t been able to avoid doing that with whose music is all over your movie and who’s been so aggressively skeptical and aggrieved about public-health measures during the pandemic. He’s also released songs with titles like “They Own the Media” — this is stuff that’s at best ignorant and at worst, worse. My judgment of Van jolted me out of the film every time his voice came on the soundtrack. So I clearly haven’t been able to figure out a satisfying answer to the good art/bad artist question, but how do you think about the issue?
Branagh’s response is interesting and (I think) instructive:
This way of trying to understand the world, which I encountered back there in that particular area of tribalism in Belfast — you’re with us or you’re against us — it seems to me allows for little of the humanity that appears in the gaps between those harshly drawn lines. In those gaps all sorts of human behavior occurs. Sometimes irresponsible behavior and sometimes heroic behavior. I have not understood or followed particularly what Van has spoken about in this regard. He is entirely and utterly an artist, and he has his particular unique Celtic brand of it, including a sort of inbuilt defiance of convention, independence of mind. With such passion also comes, inevitably, strong opinions and a very particular and in his case ever-changing personality. But I found him, as an artistic ally, a real mensch. That was my direct experience and the one that I can best talk about, and it was excellent.
I see a few things in Branagh’s response. First, he reminds us that our tribalistic impulses aren’t really new, even if they seem more prominent these days. They obviously featured quite prominently in 1960s Belfast, with all its bitter and violent Protestant Catholic sortings of “good” and “bad.” And anyone who has read even a sliver of human history will know that the examples can be multiplied, well, pretty much endlessly.
Second, he offers a defense of human individuality. He acknowledges that he’s not really up on every opinion that Van Morrison may have uttered about every contentious issue. He affirms Van’s artistic defiance and independence of mind. He doesn’t pretend that individuals won’t have strong opinions, even opinions that challenge the regnant orthodoxies of the moment. He doesn’t back away from his friend because he has this or that unpopular opinion. He calls him a “mensch”— a “person of integrity and honour” (yes, I had to google the word). I admire Branagh for not capitulating to the interviewer’s assumptions and throwing his friend under the bus.
Third, and I think most importantly, he talks about the gaps between our harshly drawn lines. This is where humanity is to be found, Branagh says. Real humanity, not the sanitized and socially approved versions that we all like to project. It is in between the gaps that we all live. And I think that if we are ever to move past all the ugly nastiness and endless preening moralizing of our cultural moment, we will have to recognize this. We are all human beings, simultaneously sinners and saints. There are no pristine categories of “good people” and “bad people,” much as we like to pretend this is the case, desperate as we are to locate ourselves in the former rather than the latter, if only in public perception.
There is a deep irony at the heart of our cultural moment: 1) rarely have ostensibly moral questions seemed to so dominate our media and everyday discourse; 2) rarely have we been so unkind and uncharitable to those neighbours who don’t share our views. Our harshly drawn lines aren’t doing us many favours. They seem to just be turning us into harsher people.