Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
So this is what we are forced to imagine. You have been invited to a party. There is a stated theme, or maybe it’s just a general fancy-dress affair. You go to the mirror, look at your handsome face and think: Hey, brown makeup! Or you look at your somewhat less handsome face and think: Hey, Nazi uniform!
Is there any species of dumb that’s dumber than donning a racist or fascist costume under cover of a party? Justin Trudeau, once our “It Boy” Prime Minister, is reeling from revelations that he dressed in brownface for an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001. Some may remember Prince Harry’s equally ill-judged decision to favour a brown shirt and swastika for a swanky birthday party back in 2005. What is it about parties? In both cases, you have to wonder: What were these guys thinking? I mean, really – brownface and brown shirt? I’m older than both of them, but even at their respective ages I think I would have known that these were bad, perhaps despicable, choices. Brownface? Brown shirt? Red flags, guys, red flags.
“I take responsibility for my decision to do that,” the PM said this week on the campaign trail. “I should have known better.” He added: “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry.” Things got even worse when it was revealed that, in high school, the youthful Justin performed Harry Belafonte’s hit song Day-O while wearing “makeup.”
Let’s be clear. We are not talking, here, about the nasty N-word dialogue in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) or the casual disregard shown for black people in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884). In both those cases, and many similar ones, there is an argument that the quoted characters are not identical with the author. Even T.S. Eliot’s avowed anti-Semitism or Enid Blyton’s racism might be contextualized, if never excused, based on the passage of time. But Mr. Trudeau: 2001. Prince Harry: 2005.
We are forced to recall, in the Prime Minister’s case, his justification, faced with accusations of unwanted groping, that “someone else might have experienced that differently and this is part of the reflections that we have to go through.” Memo to Justin: Some of us do our ethical reflections before the fact, not after.
The issues go beyond parties, japes and half-baked apologies. Recently, comedian Shane Gillis had his upcoming contract with Saturday Night Live cancelled because of racist and homophobic jokes he made, all captured on social media. This ignited an enraged counterattack from mostly white, mostly middle-aged comedians who saw it as an example of “cancel culture” – the new right-wing code for what used to be called political correctness.
Never mind that SNL, and especially executive producer Lorne Michaels, can boast no clean sheet when it comes to racist, homophobic and politically craven humour (the show’s kiss-ups to Donald Trump are especially egregious, though maybe balanced by some other gags). When Bill Burr, Jim Jefferies, Rob Schneider and others lamented this contractual decision as “cancelling,” they were just wrong. Wrong, period. There are consequences to actions, whether or not you consider yourself an “edgy” comedian or a handsome fellow with a fine social pedigree.
Some people, lamenting the new vigilance over what public figures say and do, wonder if there is no statute of limitations on bad behaviour. “Sheesh, guys, it was 2001! I was a kid!” In 2001, Justin Trudeau was 29 years old. Shane Gillis was 30 when he recorded the now-infamous podcast. “But I’m a comedian who takes risks.” Again, no. It’s not being overly sensitive or too social-justice warrior or “millennial” to respond: “Sorry, no free pass on that one, now or ever.”
Personally, I’m with Aristotle. The Greek philosopher taught us that your actions are your character. What you do is who you are. There is no escape hatch from that, just a deep and never-ending responsibility. Who you are today is who you were yesterday. We may forgive, but we never forget. Saying you “take responsibility” does not alter the record.
Have you done bad things in your life? Of course you have. So have I. Let’s hope we all exercised better judgment than even contemplating donning dark facial makeup or a swastika – or finessing a charge of sexual harassment. For the rest, the world must decide. Welcome to ethical life, friends.