Oscar nominations for 2020 were published recently. This year there’s a higher percentage of nominees in the white male demographic than the last few Academy Award seasons. This has been picked up by the #woke media and the #woke commentariat as a good opportunity to make noise about the sexist racist prejudice of the establishment.
I don’t follow Hollywood movies closely enough to have much opinion about the individual nominations but one doesn’t have to be a card carrying member of the #woke fraternity to believe decision-making (i.e. choosing who gets nominated for an industry’s most prestigious prize) shouldn’t be prejudiced against anyone, regardless their race, gender, sexuality, age or ethnicity.
Let’s go a step further and say while it’s not possible to ensure equality of outcome – because that would be to degrade individual excellence to a point where we structure systems to squash the best – we must have equality of opportunity – because that is to liberate individual excellence so it can excel in a system structured to elevate the disadvantaged so they can compete on merit. These two ideas – equality of outcome and equality of opportunity – sit at the heart of any fair society.
It’s in the conflation of outcome and opportunity that #woke culture steps outside its proper sphere of influence. Try the following case in point. It’s illustrative.
Stephen King (the novelist) is a member of the Academy in three categories and recently posted a quote, answering a question on his decision making process: “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong,” Nothing too foul here, but the maxim came under fire almost immediately.
Director Ava DuVernay called King’s comments “so backward and ignorant you want to go back to bed”. Writer Roxane Gay tweeted King only believed in “quality from one demographic”. King saw how perhaps he had been misunderstood, replying that he believed everyone deserved a fair shot (equality of opportunity) and added: “You can’t win awards if you’re shut out of the game”. King’s trying to point out that lack of female or ethnic diversity in Oscar nominations is a problem and one that deserves attention.
There are many ways to address the provision of equal opportunities in the arts but none of them should trample on the higher ideal of judging ars gratia artis. If none of the year’s best films were directed by women, the studios may need to cast a wider net to find the best female directors or film schools work harder on developing their female students as much as they do their male students. But when it comes to the finished creations and the question “which is the best?” the only consideration should be artistic value. Creativity can’t be an equality of outcome.
What irks me in this little exchange between Stephen King and the director and writer isn’t so much the contrarian opinions of the latter but the disingenuous twisting of King’s point to fit #woke agenda. Communication lights the path to truth and this is about all we have, in this confusing world. Deliberately perverting communication to suit one’s own agenda is one of the most insidious of social ills. It’s one of the most loathsome markers of the very worst in the political sphere, for instance, and we all know how dirty political narratives have become.
Fake news is an insult that’s viscerally abhorrent precisely because it’s wilfully degraded communication, to mislead that path to truth. On a smaller scale, the #woke responses of the director and the writer to Stephen King are committing the same crime. Roxanne Gay slams King for believing only in art from one demographic. But this isn’t what he wrote at all. If anything, King’s initial quote was trying to saying it would be wrong to believe in art from any particular demographic, because demographic isn’t relevant when it comes to the artistic merit of a creation.
This is a minor incident but there are countless more significant instances of #woke agenda being allowed to triumph over truth. The #woke bandwagon is overloaded with ambitious self-interest and it has created a backlash that’s evolving into its own bandwagon with a similarly motley crew. Self-interest is a powerful motivator and these voices come to overwhelm the authentic.
The #woke ideals are decent and progressive. Equality of opportunity is an undeniable good. Sadly these ideals have been hijacked. Communication and truth are the casualties and, with something similar happening to the frontline voices of the equally valid protest against enforced equality of outcome, the end result is a culture that’s chasing its own tail. More time goes by, deeper groove the habits of accepting truth is subjective and communication needn’t be sincere so long as it serves one’s predilections.
What a world we’ll create if the civility pendulum doesn’t start swinging back towards nuance and empathy soon.