Want to make a really bad time for yourself on social media? Register an opinion about Dylan Farrow’s letter published by the New York Times on Feb. 2 stating that her father, Woody Allen, sexually abused her some two decades ago when she was 7. Better yet, register an opinion that stops short of totally vilifying either Allen, who despite the general ick factor of his attraction to younger women was never charged with a crime, or Farrow, who makes a powerful case despite its lack of concrete evidence (not unusual in such situations). Pretty soon — probably within seconds — you’ll have the Facebook equivalent of a sun shower. Contentious comments will rain down on you even as you bask in the glow of “likes.”
Not good enough? Suggest Farrow must be believed beyond a shadow of a doubt and you’ll be said to be “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Suggest that it’s a questionable practice to print accusations without granting equal time to the accused and you might be labeled a “rape apologist.”
These grenades will be lobbed by your closest friends and most respected colleagues. You’ll be shocked by their self-righteousness and naivete, and they’ll be shocked by yours. Actually, shocked won’t really cover it.
As your peers spout theories you find illogical and self-serving, you will be disappointed, saddened, even depressed. You will tell yourself to get off social media, or at least move on to less polarizing topics, for instance the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or that giraffe that was killed and fed to lions at a Danish zoo. But of course you won’t, and pretty soon you will hate everyone you know — and yourself too.
In case you haven’t set up a Google alert for every new development in this scandal, here’s the latest: Over the weekend, Allen’s rebuttal to Farrow’s accusation was published in the New York Times. In it, he said he had never molested her and that she’d been used as a pawn by her vengeful mother. Farrow promptly called Allen’s defense “the latest rehash of the same legalese, distortions and outright lies he has leveled at me for the past 20 years.”
Social media users posted all this news as it happened, and the infighting resumed. Professional columnists and commentators continued to offer varying degrees of indignation and speculation, depending on what their publications would let them get away with. Everyone, whether they decided against a rush to judgment or were inclined to believe one or the other party, emphasized that there were no winners in the situation.
Why, exactly, have so many been so inflamed? Most rational people, after all, understand that barring a confession from Allen or a credible recantation from Farrow, undisputed facts are not going to emerge and allow one side to declare victory.
But the he said/she said is only part of the dilemma here. We’re grappling not only with whether one man’s sexual proclivities crossed the line into criminal abuse, but a corollary: Do those proclivities cancel out that man’s significant cultural contributions?
To ask those who care about Allen’s work if they’ll still go see his movies is really to ask: “Which do you value more? Aesthetics or morality? Beauty or truth?”
And because answers can’t be absolutely pinned down and because no one wins this debate — Do we demonize Picasso and his fans because the painter was an epic womanizer with a teenage mistress? Do we refuse to be friends with anyone who owns a Wagner recording because the composer was famously anti-Semitic? — we fall back on gossip and rumor and slugfests on social media. It’s much easier, and snappier, to call someone a rape apologist than to have a rigorous discussion about the puzzle separating the artist from the art.
On the other hand, maybe it’s convenient that arguably Allen’s last great movie, “Husbands and Wives,” came out around the same time as the original abuse allegations. As hard as it is to separate the artist and the art, it’s harder still to distinguish those who’ve stopped going to Allen’s movies on moral grounds from those who’ve given up because his films mostly keep getting worse. So, in a way, there are a few winners here: starting with those who skipped “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” for any reason whatsoever.