Recent discussions about Kobe Bryant’s death have brought back to the forefront of my mind an issue I’ve spent a lot of time questioning—but not in the way most news media have spun it.
I don’t really care about Bryant as a person.
Maybe that’s because I’ve never been a sports fan, or because I’m somewhere above 5’7” (5’8” on a good day), or maybe it’s because I’m a cold-hearted bastard.
But I prefer to think of it as healthy detachment. Bryant, as people have slowly come to re-remember, did some very bad things in his lifetime.
He raped a woman. I will go ahead and call that unforgivable.
You may disagree with me, but the fact remains that Bryant appears to have shown no signs of remorse over the remainder of his life.
Some have pointed to the way he raised his family as a sign that he can’t have been all that bad, but plenty of terrible men have raised families. A lot of human history involves terrible men raising families.
People are complicated beings. Bryant achieved things that many people would call great. I don’t personally understand the valorization of sports, but this speaks to something more generally than a matter of athletic taste.
Celebrity culture has existed for a long time—much longer than the advent of modern mass media would suggest.
When Dickens visited the US, people swarmed him, although it was likely his characters and labyrinthine plots they loved rather than the man himself.
This has, of course, continued today, as Bryant’s death makes clear. But with so many people paying attention to his life’s actions, the good and the bad, much of the nuance has vanished.
Now comes the point where an ordinary enlightened centrist pundit would tell us to avoid “cancel culture,” whatever that means.
We cannot cancel celebrities any more than we can kill a subscription we receive in the mail.
I don’t believe, in other words, that cancellation is the issue. People’s works will outlive them, whether we like it or not, and future generations will have to contend with these works. They can choose to ignore them, of course, but that is ahistorical and, I believe, very dangerous.
Complete disownment of works, whether they come from athletes, artists, or politicians, prevents us from grappling with the reality of the world.
Much of our education should focus not only on how we would like the world to be, but also how the world actually is—and what we can do to improve it.
But we cannot improve the world if we have no awareness of what is wrong in it. And the all-or-nothing mindset that requires us to either accept every part of a person’s life or reject it all outright impedes us from ever seeing the nuance. People can do good and bad things. Every person, I would venture to say, does both, if they live long enough.
We have a tendency, though, to treat people as if they are the most extreme thing they have ever done and no more or less.
We do not have to like people, and in many cases we should not like certain people, but to be responsible members of our community we should understand the complexities of their legacy.
That’s why I’m not a fan of naming buildings or parks and the like after people. Everyone is wrong sometimes. That doesn’t make it OK to be wrong.
I don’t think we should memorialize moral failure, ever. Instead, we should contend with it, and that requires direct, active awareness of what people have done. Proactive education, public discussion, and above all the critical awareness that people are never perfect and are always capable of wrongdoing, of oppression.
For several days following Bryant’s death there was an eerie silence online. People talked about him, of course; I couldn’t click anywhere without reading about him.
But for a very long time no one said what so many of us must have known, that he was a rapist, and that for some reason the world decided it was “too soon” to confront that reality.
It is never too soon to confront reality.
Reality is the medium in which we live. We can appreciate what celebrities have to say, but we must always remember that they are real people too, not idealized reflections of a world we want to exist. And that means they are far from perfect.
We shouldn’t worship imperfection. But neither should we ignore it.