In his classic 1961 novel,
Kurt Vonnegut wrote,
“We are what we pretend to be,
so we must be careful
about what we pretend to be.”
It’s remarkably good advice, especially for the young people quickest to embrace that author’s bibliography (I read those words for the first time when I was 18). At that age it’s very easy to pretend to be people we will later on regret, because very few of us have any clue who we really are as we enter the earliest stages of adulthood.
Many of us find ourselves bluffing our way through our 20s, adopting the disguises that intrigue us and suit our immediate purposes. Some of us like what we become and stay that way for the rest of our lives, but many of us end up looking back at that time with a weary regret made possible by the eventual discovery of our true selves.
And when you consider how many of us go through this exact same experience, you would think that we would be more forgiving of the mistakes and thousand natural fuck-ups we all end up committing during this period of our lives, but we really aren’t—which is why Vonnegut’s advice is also a warning.
This is especially true in this era of social media, where all of these dumb mistakes often end up being recorded permanently on the Internet—where they can never be erased or forgotten. We now warn our children to be very careful of what they document and share with the world, lest it permanently affect how they are judged for the rest of their life. We urge them not to take pictures and show them to their friends. We tell them not to publically air their personal and potentially unpopular thoughts. We suggest that if they do anything online, they should do so under a pseudonym.
The one thing we don’t do is question the idea that it is acceptable to judge a person not by who they are now, but by who they were in the past. Instead, we all seem to accept that it isn’t completely fucking ridiculous that a 40 year-old be denied a job because of a picture they foolishly posed in when they were 19 or that a band’s entire musical and philanthropic output be dismissed because of a terrible song they recorded when they were 22.
If that last example seems kinda specific, it’s because it is.
This whole post was inspired by some comments I’ve encountered the past few days regarding the legacy of the Beastie Boys in the face of their controversial position regarding the use of their music in a popular and moving toy commercial. The argument is thus: The fact that they ever recorded a song as unapologetically misogynist as “Girls” essentially negates any positive social impact they may have had following its release.
It would seem that the company who made the commercial supports this analysis, its argument seemingly hinging on the idea that they were justified in ignoring the wishes of the deceased Adam Yauch to never have his music used for commercial purposes because they did so in a manner that parodied an obviously sexist song—their activism trumping his deathbed request.
That’s debatable—and likely will be until everyone has to step away from their blogs and twitter accounts to celebrate turkey day with their families—but where I take issue is in the idea that everything the group did after that recording was meaningless and forever invalidated by that one specific mistake.
For while it is true that in 1986 they released a song that said:
“Girls – to do the dishes
Girls – to clean up my room
Girls – to do the laundry
Girls – and in the bathroom
Girls, that’s all I really want is girls”
It is equally true that eight years later they released a song that said:
“I want to say something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end”
But words are easy, right? They are, which is why the group should also be judged by their actions. Such as the fact that when they toured with Prodigy, they asked the band to not perform one of their most popular songs–“Smack My Bitch Up”–specifically because they found its implication of gendered violence offensive. Or that they refused to include either “Girls” or the even more popular “Fight For Your Right” on their greatest hits album or perform them live in concert. That they did in fact apologize with both words and deeds for the offense, which they clearly regretted.
Back in 1986, Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond and Adam Horowitz all pretended to be guys they eventually discovered they weren’t. They were young and their pretending was so popular it made them famous and they could have easily carried on that path for the rest of their careers. But they didn’t. Just three years later they released “Paul’s Boutique”, an album that was everything “License to Ill” was not. That was all the time they needed to recognize their mistakes and to start growing up.
They are not the example we should be denouncing; they are the example to which we should all be aspiring.
Because all of us make mistakes—and though we may be what we pretend to be, we won’t always be what we pretended to be.
To argue otherwise is to set an ideological purity test virtually no one could ever pass. One that insists we spend our entire lives not being human, but instead perfect exemplars of the specific ideals we will eventually advocate. It’s an impossible standard—one that we seem to set specifically so we can avoid the potential messiness of actual debate and instead replace it with much more convenient wholesale dismissal. “I’m not going to argue with you about this, because you said a stupid thing once and therefore everything you’ve said since is suspect.”
I believe we have to stop accepting the idea that it is reasonable for a person’s entire life to be compromised based on the follies of their youth, especially if they can prove that they have worked tirelessly to repair any damage they may have caused.
Does that mean every youthful transgression should be forgiven? Of course not. There are some acts so horrible that they would require a dozen lifetimes to be redeemed. But by refusing to forgive much lesser crimes we do a disservice to the present in the name of the past and we ignore an aspect of humanity that should be celebrated rather than dismissed—our capacity for growth, change and enlightenment.