Erykah Badu, the self-professed spiritual guide, and humanist, caused a huge stir when Vulture published a conversation between her and the writer in which Badu expressed a sense of empathy for maligned, possibly even evil figures.
“I see good in everybody,” she claimed. “I saw something good in Hitler.”
Of course, there is where most of the screenshots stopped, allowing readers’ minds to jump to fanciful conclusions about Badu, a Black woman, somehow relating to the abhorrent views of Nazi dictator and real-life supervillain Adolf Hitler. Which, she wasn’t. If we read beyond the conveniently clipped-for-outrage quote, we see there’s more to the story.
Yeah, I did. Hitler was a wonderful painter.
No, he wasn’t! And even if he was, what would his skill as a painter have to do with any “good” in him?
Okay, he was a terrible painter. Poor thing. He had a terrible childhood. That means that when I’m looking at my daughter, Mars. I could imagine her being in someone else’s home and being treated so poorly, and what that could spawn. I see things like that. I guess it’s just the Pisces in me.
What Ms. Badu is describing here is not Mein Kampf-quoting, Seig Heil-saluting, “Hilter-was-right”-ism. What she really seems to be aiming at is the ever-elusive concept of sympathy for the devil, the understanding that though a person may do monstrous things, at heart, they are still just a person, and people have reasons — legitimate or otherwise — for doing the things they do.
It’s why just last year, I spent more time than I felt comfortable wrestling with the implications of Uproxx’s coverage of known scumbags like Kodak Black and XXXtentacion. Both men have been accused and — in some cases — convicted of awful abuses of other human beings. Yet, we also looked closely at how their dire conditions affected their ability to cope with stress or anger, how their role models or lack thereof shaped their worldview, morality, and responses to extreme situations.
One of the most critically-hailed films of the past year, the Academy Award-nominated I, Tonya, takes a look at a largely-reviled pop cultural figure of the ‘90s with the objective of finding out why she did what she did. Judging from all the evidence, investigators determined that most likely Tonya Harding knew all about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.
Yet, I, Tonya seeks to set that aside to see if it is possible to have some sympathy for the devil. In this case, it appears that if there are a good enough writer and director and cinematographer and a pretty enough actress to depict you, yes, people can find some somewhere in their hearts for people who commit nefarious deeds. But what about real people without the benefit of Hollywood biopics?
When Chris Brown sang of forgiveness for his abuse of Rihanna, or when we excuse the scurrilous pasts of rappers like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg — or any number of trap rappers who mine their criminal backgrounds to project an air of menace (that we as rap fans admittedly devour with alarming alacrity) — are we not making the exact same calculations that Badu is talking about here? Separating art from the artist is a thing many argue for or against, but it appears we’ve lost the thread a bit when we’re making the determination that an artist is completely trash because we misread an opinion on the internet.
And that’s where the problem with the broken “woke/trash” dichotomy lies. When we remove nuance and context from any and every possible discussion about prickly topics, not only are we flattening the debate to only allow for one of two imperfect, zero-sum outcomes, we’re making it almost impossible to live up to the standard of simply being a decent person.
To step back from the artist metaphor and paraphrase a guy who had a lot of great ideas about how we should endeavor to treat one another: Let the perfect person among us here on the internet cast the first stone. Show of hands: Who here has never made an off-color joke, or expressed the “wrong” opinion about a subject or has never chimed in on the trending topic of the day, only to be shouted down by the mob for being “fake woke,” whatever that means? By all means, chuck away, but if you’re being honest with yourself, you probably don’t deserve to pick up a rock in the first place. I know I don’t.
I’m not saying that we need to let everyone say anything that pops into their head. Certainly, the “devils” of this extended metaphor deserve to be corrected if possible and punished if necessary, but we always seem to leave it there. We tell them, “You are canceled.” Which really seems to mean, “You don’t deserve anything else in life but to be a pariah, forever ostracized for a moment of poor judgement or an out-of-context quote from an interview.”
It’s crazy to think this way, but it’s even crazier to expect that we can all continue to both sit on high and judge while simultaneously avoiding that same judgment. It’s a natural step to expand this treatment to our everyday conversations, and many have observed that it’s already happening, with even noted activist-writer Ta-Nehisi Coates being chased off Twitter for not being “woke” enough or the right kind of “woke.” Every dog has its day, as they say, but that saying can be a negative as well. Everyone casting stones will eventually get their own moment in the hot seat, and in that moment, won’t they also be asking for a little grace?
Back to Erykah Badu. The opinion she expressed here, when you strip away the outrage and pithy commentary from the social media peanut gallery, is simple. There’s good and bad in everybody. Judge people by their actions, but never lose sight of the fact that they’re a person. Nobody is perfect and no one should be held up to the impossible standards of whatever “woke” means on the internet these days. There is so much more to people than “woke” or “trash,” and letting ourselves remember it may help make our modern times a whole lot easier to handle.