Another round of morality vs greatness

At this moment, part of our collective cultural discussion is focused once again on the question, “should the personal life of a creative person impact how we judge their work?” Over time, the moral failings of certain creative geniuses have been viewed according to a different moral code. This is not a new question by any stretch, though, in my mind, it has taken an interesting turn recently. The accusations of child molestation against Woody Allen is the most obvious case, but I am actually more interested in the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow has accused him of molesting her when she was very young. She has expanded her accusations to urge others who have supported and enabled Allen’s prolific film career to reconsider their support of Allen. I only know what I have read in the newspaper about the back and forth, so I am not going to step in to this one.

The creative world is full of stories of men (and women) who were particularly horrible people, while being masters of their chosen forms of creative expression. The argument goes that Allen’s “alleged” crimes were so horrific that they have to call into question his entire creative legacy. This whole issue has become especially controversial because Allen’s film “Blue Jasmine” is up for an Oscar award.

Another film maker in the background of the Woody Allen controversy is Roman Polanski. His creative work had to be considered through this morality vs. greatness framework when he faced similar accusations. He has essentially admitted, through his proposed guilty plea, that he at a minimum, had sex with a 13 year old girl.

At this same moment, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death has prompted an outpouring of admiration, grief and accolades for the late actor.

Two things trouble me about the collective weeping for Hoffman.

First, he killed himself with an overdose of heroin. He killed himself. Is there no concern about that as a moral failing? It seems like his death was inadvertent, yet when anyone else kills another person “inadvertently” it is called involuntary manslaughter and is punished as a moral failing.

Hoffman was an addict and yes, addiction is an illness. Illness in and of itself is not a moral failing. Failing to get help to manage that illness, that is a moral failing.

Also, the same week that Hoffman killed himself with an overdose, how many other people died in NYC or across the country died of heroin over doses? Hoffman was obviously able to afford as much heroin as he “needed” and he also was able to previously pay to get himself into a rehabilitation program for his addiction.

Had Hoffman been poor, rather than wealthy, he would likely have resorted to crime to support his habit. Mugging people on the streets, breaking into apartments, etc.

We look at the heroin-addict who is driven by their addiction, who turns to crime as clearly having moral failings. If they were viewed as the victims of an illness, we would treat them that way. Instead, we have built much of our criminal justice system around punishing the “moral failure” of these same addiction-driven criminals.

I am not defending the behavior of heroin-addicted criminals. I am pointing out that yes, I grieve for Hoffman as much as the next creative professional. Still, many other heroin-addicts fatally overdosed recently and many more will continue to be imprisoned for their “moral failings.”

Woody Allen’s moral failings will likely continue to be debated forever (surely long past his death.) I would love to see a similar debate over the failings of Phillip Seymour Hoffman but I doubt it will happen. Is that because we do not want to dishonor the dead or because we so love the characters he played? Or is it because we are afraid to admit the hypocrisy of viewing his overdose as a tragedy and the next addict’s similar overdose as a moral failing.

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