Compassion: on Woody Allen and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Hello, Internet, today is Monday, February 3rd, and I want to talk about compassion. And celebrity. And compassion for celebrities. It’s all very complicated… I hope I can make this make sense.

But first, a brief summary of what I’m seeing happening on the internet right now.

1) Philip Seymour Hoffman has died of an apparent heroin overdose.

2) Woody Allen was recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, which has renewed focus on the allegations of paedophilia that have been on the table for the past two decades.

3) Everyone – EVERYONE – has opinions about these things. Often, these opinions are polarized. And the whole thing makes me tired.

In the first case, there is much discussion on whether we should mourn a man who ostensibly self-destructed. It leads into discussions of compromised mental health and the qualities of addiction (fraught subjects, both). In the second, the discussion centres, not even so much on whether or not he did it, but whether we can separate Allen’s considerable accomplishments in film from his possible abuse of a little girl.

We speculate… we can’t avoid it. It’s a characteristic of our humanity. We see something terrible – something so horrific that we can’t imagine or even grasp it as a real occurrence – and then we come to an instinctive conclusion about what happened. About who is at fault. We lay blame. This is how we defend ourselves against distant, terrible realities. And we care so much about where the blame lies that we will fight each other in an effort to make ourselves right about it.

This might vindicate us, for a little while, to argue about the ins and outs of the lives of celebrities, to be “right” while someone else is “wrong”. But it doesn’t solve the problem: that the world is, sometimes, too brutal, too ugly, for us to process. In fact, it makes that problem worse. We leap to the defence of one party, which usually means leaping to attack someone else.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was an excellent actor. He also had an addiction problem – one that seems to have killed him. He’s a victim, no matter how you swing it.

There is no reason that you should mourn him if you don’t feel mournful. But spreading the sentiment that one who has succumbed to addiction does not deserve to be mourned shows, and validates, a lack of compassion. And, if you are proudly announcing that you have no compassion for PSH, then how can the people in your life expect you to feel compassionate towards them? How can they expect you to react when you find out about their problems? People make mistakes – that’s part of being human, too. By definition, your friends and family have made mistakes, and it’s only luck that determines whether those mistakes define their lives.

By spreading a lack of compassion, we are creating victims out of normal people.

Here is the other side of that coin:

Is Woody Allen guilty of child abuse? I don’t know… and neither do you. But I know this: Dylan Farrow is a victim. If she isn’t a victim of sexual assault, then she is undeniably a victim of everything that the world has thrown at her since that allegation came out… at age 7. The speculation of the media, of the entertainment industry, of bloggers and columnists, has taken over completely. Every time her name is dragged through the mud, or propped up as an example of a brave woman in a losing battle, she is impacted. Even her supporters injure her in this way. How is she to move on when her dirty laundry is aired for the world to see and analyse and interpret?

It seems like this attention comes from compassion as well, though, doesn’t it? We defend whomever we most empathize with.

Well, not really, no.

We take a side and we stick to it. We trust our gut instincts so much that we are willing to call each other horrible things from behind the safety of our computers – and, occasionally, to each others’ faces – because we believe that we have chosen the right side. We bring out our angry-faces because we are defending ourselves against the possibility that we are wrong. We abandon our compassion, both for those with household names, and for each other.

Again, we are creating victims. We are hurting people who have been through sexual assault by questioning someone who has come forward to talk about it. We are hurting people who have been falsely accused of just about anything by jumping to lay blame.

Is it our responsibility to worry about each others’ feelings to the point that we don’t share our opinions? No. But it is also not our responsibility to come down on one side of every issue, and doubly not when the issue concerns the private lives of celebrities.

We need to talk about addiction. We need to talk about sexual assault. We need to talk about mental health and addiction. But our focus on celebrity – through the alternately rose-coloured or darkened lens offered to us – is bad for our compassion. Instead of taking care of each other, we determine our opinions based on gut reactions to situations that have no real impact on our lives. We have given ourselves the impression that people in the public eye are known to us, and we have given ourselves permission behave as if we know them better than we would presume to know our close friends. And, in doing so, and in defending our ill-informed opinions, we hurt each other.

So, a challenge, issued to anyone who cares to rise to it: stop arguing about things that have no bearing on your life. Reserve judgement of those in the public eye as though they were – imagine! – people instead of celebrities. Focus that energy on making a difference to the part of the world that does impact you.

And don’t lose your compassion. It’s one of the best parts of being human.



Addendum: I received a comment on Facebook that challenged my “we don’t know what happened” stance about the Dylan/Woody affair, and my assertion that “people who are upset about this are victimizing Dylan”. I was originally going to comment back on Facebook, but I do go on so I thought it would be better here. Please feel free to carry on this conversation in comments if you like.

To the friend in question: I’ve obviously upset you, and I hope you know that that was not my intention. Nor was it my intention to silence Dylan or any other victim of sexual assault. But I stand by what I said. I don’t know what happened. That’s not my opinion on a charged issue and it’s not controversial… it’s a fact. I wasn’t there and I don’t know. What is likely or who I’m inclined to believe doesn’t enter into it. The point I was trying to make (however inarticulately) is that speculation gets us nowhere. This is, unfortunately, not a rare circumstance. We don’t need to use Dylan Farrow as a flag to wave – we have our sisters, cousins, nieces, daughters. We have ourselves. Let’s talk about sexual assault, and the way in which our society villainizes victims and excuses assailants. We weaken our case when we get tangled up in stories where we don’t have all the information, where we are reduced to using probable truths where tangible facts belong. We are better fighters when our weapons are not built out of speculation.

And I did not mean to imply that being upset by this affair victimizes Dylan. What I said (or meant to say) was that engaging others in the argument, no matter which side you take, injures her by provoking more hateful language, by putting her intensely personal business in the way of people who will use it to attack her.