If I Work Out to Chris Brown Music, Am I Supporting an Abuser?


Emily Heist Moss insists that while we can argue for capitalism and free speech, we can’t pretend we don’t know that there are real, ethical, human costs attached to every consumer act we commit.

Originally appeared at Role/Reboot. Republished here with permission.

Do you have Chad Johnson, Michael Vick, or Ben Roethlisberger on your fantasy football roster? Do you root for Jason Kidd or Ron Artest? Not a sports fan? Do you like Chris Brown’s music? Do you appreciate the art of Picasso? Do you like James Brown? Do you, from time to time, enjoy the films of Roman Polanski or the stories of Ernest Hemingway?

Join the club, we’re called Supporters of Violence and Violence Against Women and we have about seven billion members. It begins with you and me and ends just shy of nuns and cave-dwelling hermits. Our activities include patronizing establishments that discriminate, buying records that line the pockets of abusers, and supporting the ex-pat lifestyle of child rapists who go overseas to avoid trial. What do we get in exchange for membership in this club? Entertainment, some damn good entertainment.


In the wake of Chick-fil-A’s public relations nightmare, I’ve seen my online network explode with debates about patronage, convenience, free speech, and the value of a really good chicken sandwich. In all of the vitriol coming from both sides, we act like this, to buy Chick-fil-A or not, is the first decision of its kind that we’ve ever had to make. Remember when One Million Moms tried to boycott J.C. Penny when they hired Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson? Or when they protested Chaz Bono’s inclusion on “family” show Dancing with the Stars? Same idea, different sides. The act of boycotting a business based on their politics is old news, but you don’t need to issue a press release to make it official. In fact, the smaller decisions we make every day of what to buy and where are effectively a rolling, evolving portrait of our collective values.

Every time we choose a television show to fall asleep to, every time we buy a hamburger, every time we choose this department store instead of that department store, we are communicating our values with our dollars. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those values are convenience, practicality, ease, and cost. Once in a while, a values statement is so loud or so emphatic that we feel we must pay attention; that’s what happened with Chick-fil-A. On a small scale, we all make consumer bargains every single day to make our lives a little simpler.

Do I know that the lettuce on my burger was picked by migrant laborers in the hot California sun? Yes. Do I know that the Forever 21 tee I’m wearing was $9.99 because it was sewn in an airless room by immigrants who make a few cents per garment? Yes. Do I know that my enjoyment of mango in Chicago, instead of sticking to apples and potatoes, explodes my carbon footprint? Yes. We can make every argument we want about capitalism and money as free speech, but we can’t pretend we don’t know that there are real, ethical, human costs attached to every consumer act we commit. After we acknowledge those costs, it’s just a question of how much they matter.

If I sat down and wrote out the values that I wanted my consumer dollars to support, I would never be able to shop again, for anything. The economy I live in is not based on the values I would list, and unless I’m ready to make my own clothes, grow my own food, and hamster-wheel my own electricity, I have to find ways to operate in this economy as best I can.

Could I be a better, more conscientious consumer? Of course. I try to patronize local businesses, buy used clothing, donate my excess, and live within my means, but if I’m honest with myself, I could do more with less. I could bike instead of taking the train, I could check the corporate and political donations of every big business I patronize, I could only cook with farmer’s market produce. Why don’t I? Convenience, as simple as that.

But what about entertainment? If I go to the movies, I have 20 options at a time. For every song I download, there are millions of others I could pick instead. My fantasy team will survive without Big Ben and his history of sexual assault. And although the literary canon is littered with wife beaters and violent alcoholics, I’m sure I could find a few writers who might meet my ethical standards. When an artist or athlete beats his or her spouse, tortures pets, or sleeps with underage teens, should I forsake supporting his or her work? Should I change the channel when Charlie Sheen comes on?

Ah, but art is unique, and that’s where it’s different. I could buy the same black tank top at any of a dozen stores, but there is only one “Hills Like White Elephants.” Do I up that short story so as not to tacitly condone spousal abuse that happened decades ago? If I support the creation of dangerous, destabilizing, challenging art, which I do, can I condemn the artist? That seems unfair.


We ask each other why Chris Brown still gets to perform at the BET Awards and on the Today Show. It’s the same reason that Ben Roethlisberger is still the Steelers QB and Roman Polanski still gets nominated for Oscars: We like our entertainment, and we like it a lot.

A few weeks ago in a boot camp class, the thumping background music switched from Neyo to Chris Brown in the middle of a jab, jab, cross sequence. I grimaced. I couldn’t separate the catchy hook and the boxing maneuvers from last year’s tabloid images of Rihanna’s bruised and battered face. After class, I explained my distress to the instructor, but she was baffled.

We act like there’s an obvious right and wrong to these things—and sometimes there may be—instead of recognizing the spectrum of consumer bargains we all strike every day. To my instructor, it’s just a really good song. We each have to draw our own lines in the sand. On one side live the ideas and people we value, on the other, the practical implications of living a pragmatic life. I don’t have answers, here, but I do know this: There’s no room on my fantasy roster for Big Ben.


Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for JezebelThe FriskyThe Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

For more this subject, read Joanna Schroeder’s Chris Brown, Woody Allen and Other ‘Bad Men’

AP photo/Matt Sayles
About Role/Reboot

Role/Reboot is a nonprofit created to navigate a world built on outdated assumptions about men and women's roles and to advocate ways to understand and embrace the changing reality of our day-to-day lives. Follow them @RoleReboot.


  1. And yes, Chris Brown is an unrepentant abuser. His case is different than James Brown’s, et al, because we’ve been given the privilege of much more knowledge about what he did, and also how it’s affected Rhianna. There’s no innocent naivete for the general public now. Continuing to turn a blind eye to this one, becomes a willful act of supporting abuse.

    Einstein said (paraphrasing): “The worst evil is not the evil doer. It’s those who watch him do it, but do nothing to stop it.”

  2. JahBless101 says:

    One of my pet peeves with the media is that they put forth these self fulfilling cultural narratives that the average person is not able to rise above unless they put a lot of effort towards doing so. What I’m mentioning here is that everyone cited in this article is a man. I’d be eager to read an (honest) piece from this author if all of the people in question were women. I’m not trying to accuse the author of anything, I just find that people are much more empathetic to those who they share their experience Myself included, I played college football and have seen the toll it takes on one’s body/mind, and I am therefore much more likely to view football players as victims who need help due to brain injury, the hero culture, etc rather than unforgivable jerks simply because I have an idea of how life can be in their shoes. I think there would be a lot more positive dialogue if everyone would be a little more empathetic, and a little less sensitive (the outrage is exhausting, and it only raises tempers and creates tension). After all, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent (i think that is a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt).

    • Eleanor was a champion for the disenfranchised and marginalized, and I love her for it, however, respectfully, easy for Eleanor to say, (no one can make you feel inferior without your consent), because she came from an extremely wealthy family, and had all sorts of other factors in her life, to counterbalance the fact that FDR cheated on her, and all other traumas she may have experienced.

      She had no knowledge of complex Post Traumatic Stress Injury, which is caused by domestic violence (physical, including spousal or partner rape) and by domestic abuse (verbal, financial, and all the other abuses). PTSI is akin to having sulfuric acid thrown on your face, except the poisonous cortisols and other stress hormones burn injuries into the brain, out of sight, unseen. (I’m hoping technology will be able to show the real brain injuries caused by abuse one day.)

      Simultaneously, what she said is also true. However, it takes time and support to get to that place.

  3. The cases presented here are different. Ernest Hemingway for one isn’t alive anymore, so do you really support an abuser if you buy and read his books? Maybe you rather honor him. Jason Kidd playing basketball has little to do with him abusing his wife, hence if you support the basketball player Jason Kidd you support an abuser, but not really the abuse.
    What I wondered about was Simone de Beauvoir, she has being accused of sexually abusing minors and she seems to be an important feminist author. The additional problem here is that the thing she is famous for and the thing she is accused of are linked, so her being a sexual predator (if she actually was one) might well have an influence on her feminist writing. How would a feminist handle this problem?

  4. wellokaythen says:

    If the standard is to never listen to music performed by someone with a criminal record, then I would miss out on a lot of amazing voices. Just off the top of my head:

    Ray Charles
    Johnny Cash
    Frank Sinatra
    Whitney Houston

    Et cetera, et cetera

    Hell, in the case of James Brown you’d have to refuse to even mention his name or ever say “I feel good.”

    I suppose one could separate out “domestic violence” as a distinctly different category, but what does that say about one’s values to make that the only unforgiveable crime?

  5. I don't know says:

    We all have blood on our hands.

  6. John Schtoll says:

    I really wish people would stop calling Chris Brown an abuser, he did not commit abuse, he commited an assault, a terrible and vicious assault, but it wasn’t abuse, it wasn’t domestic violence it was an assault. As far as we know a one time assault, was it terrible yes, once again, we are adding to stats of DV that should not be added to, we have to talk about these things and use truthfull statements because the truth will allow us to come up with meanfull solutions, piling on won’t. We will spend our efforts in areas where they won’t do any good if we don’t know the real story.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      John, I’ve heard you make your case for why this isn’t DV and it is perplexing. Why don’t you share this theory with the people here.

      For the record, I disagree with John. It WAS domestic abuse.

  7. Christopher says:

    Thanks for the great article Emily – a number of points whirring in my brain kept being addressed nicely.

    I agree it comes to everyone’s own line in the sand – I’ve been through phases of only buying fair trade clothing, I don’t illegally download music, I sure as anything don’t listen to Chris Brown, but I’m not sure ethics is the only incentive there :-).

    I think there’s a big problem with democracy – that big chunk of responsibility that comes with it. People living under regimes can blame oppressors, but when we’re all in charge, we’ve got a lot to live up to. In terms of ethics around sweatshops and carbon footprints – the lack of ignorance that previous generations had shows us all up a bit – no one’s really doing anything. It’s possible we could look back in years and think ‘Did we really participate in that?’ in the same way we look at slave owners now. I think some healthy balance will come, but it will take time.

    As for the Chris Browns of this world – back to that line in the sand. Do we allow time to elapse? Do we boycott? If we live but a creed, do we just forgive? I guess, as with the responsibility as inividuals sharing power in our own tiny chunks, we have to make up our own minds.

  8. I do not find the arguments presented here persuasive for three reasons.

    First, while I will admit to not following the accusations against Ben Roethlisberger very closely, I cannot seem to actually find any jury verdicts or criminal convictions. This means that the author is suggesting accusation alone be sufficient to alter behavior. This sort of thinking is what got the Duke Lacrosse team suspended for a year. The judicial process exists for a reason, it is surprisingly well intentioned and a great deal of thought has been put into it. I cannot say the same thing for tabloid accusations.

    Second, as noted, the judicial process exists for a reason. The the instance of someone like Chris Brown, there were formal charges, and a sentence was handed down. Buying or not buying his records has nothing to do with this process. It is not the job of consumers to meet out criminal punishment: we pay a great deal in taxes so that the justice system can handle this. If you are unhappy with his sentence, petition for new sentencing laws. There is no need to take personal action if you believe in the justice system. (I would also argue that many of the other issues discussed above are vastly over simplified and that the “bads” described by the author could actually be categorized properly as “goods,” specifically this old Paul Krugman piece comes to mind with respect to supposed sweat shop labor abroad:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_dismal_science/1997/03/in_praise_of_cheap_labor.html )

    Third, all of us, regardless of who we are or what we do, must have some right to our own personal lives. Many people were upset because the owner of Chik-fil-A donates a lot of money to an anti-LGBT organizaiton. But are his individual large donations really any different than if 1000 of his employees made smaller donations that added up to the same total? Should we demand to know all of our waiter’s political views at every restaurant we attend before we agree to give a tip? Undoubtedly we are much better off allowing everyone their right to personal views and personal lives.

  9. I really appreciate this article. It articulates exactly what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I agree that our consumer dollars matter and also try to be a very conscience consumer, but sometimes feel the same frustration that the only way seems to be to do it all, grow it all yourself. I draw my line in the sand everyday and I’m trying to keep improving how I use (or don’t use) my buying power. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Watching TV, movies, or listening to most any music is supporting not only abuse of single individuals, but far worse, the drug trade which is responsible for countless deaths and wrecked lives (e.g. Amy Winehouse). Not much point in boycotting Chris Brown if one is going to continue to listen to music that supports the global drug trade.

    • Great point. Where we “draw the lines” is tricky to parse out, if it can be parsed at all. I focused on abuse and violence in this piece, but you’re right that those are not the only vices and crimes that are supported by certain types of entertainment.


  1. […] These are comments by Eric M. and Christopher on the post “If I Work Out to Chris Brown Music, Am I Supporting an Abuser?“ […]

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