Societal Donatism

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It has been said that you should never try to meet your heroes, lest they be found to have feet of clay.

This adage has never been more true in our hyper-connected world, where everything is but a single click away and news—both real and fake—travels at the speed of light.1 One of the unintended consequences of this technology is that our views of our (cultural) heroes—the movers and shakers, the artists, the scientists, and so on—are constantly shifting and being re-evaluated. While this is not bad per se, many eulogies or award ceremonies are quickly followed by some new data that calls into question everything we knew about that person. Given the extreme speed in social media, we have conditioned ourselves to react immediately. In this post, I want to discuss whether an immediate reaction is a good idea, and to what extent we are demanding moral standards that are nigh unachievable.

Caveat lector: I refrain from mentioning any names of contemporary or quasi-contemporary persons because it is neither relevant nor interesting for you to read my opinion about what I make of their behaviour. This post is primarily meant to provide some food for thought as well as some ‘societal scaffolding’ to give certain trends a name.

That being said, let’s set the stage with two examples of persons long passed away. First, consider Richard Wagner, who is known to have harboured some heinous anti-Semitic views.2 A less high-brow example is given by H. P. Lovecraft, the horror writer known for his ‘purple prose’ and his very backwards and despicable views on race.

When learning about this for the first time, people tend to emit either one of two different knee jerk reactions. Some try to brush this off as stating that both men ‘children of their time,’ while others are suggesting that we should neither ignore their works altogether. What is one to do here?

I suggest that both the simple dismissal and the uncompromising removal are not the right reactions in most cases. The former reaction is wrong because of its rigidity. At its worst, it enforces an uncritical view of the world and the people in it. As mature adults, we need to be able to cope with the disappointment that some of our heroes might indeed have ‘feet of clay.’ However, the latter reaction—the uncompromising removal—is also wrong because it fails to separate creator and creation. In fact, it falls prey to the assumption that a moral flaw of the creator also infects the creation. While there are certainly instances where this is true, it does not follow by necessity.

Historical Donatism

As with many ideas, this position is ‘nothing new under the sun.’ I like to think of it as a specific type of Donatism. To put this into context, the Donatists were a group of Christians in the fourth century. Their core tenet was that priests need to be ‘faultless’ in order for their prayers and for their sacraments to be valid. Before you scoff at this, consider that a priest in the fourth century performed several important roles, some of which contained legal elements, such as keeping track of marriages. Regardless of what you think about prayers and sacraments, having your marriage invalidated by the discovery that your priest was actually not ‘qualified’ to perform one because he committed a sin, could lead to all kinds of issues down the road.3 To provide a somewhat modern example, suppose that your driver’s licence turns out to be invalid because the clerk who gave it to you was found out to have committed a crime.

Societal Donatism & Its Implications

I believe that some recent trends can be seen as a form of Societal Donatism. By this, I refer to the unspoken requirement that any creator in our society needs to be (almost) faultless or (almost) morally impeccable in order for their work to be allowed to persist in the public sphere. If, retroactively, it transpires that a person committed a crime or behaved in an untoward manner, their work is immediately called into question. Are we still allowed to enjoy their music, their films, their lecture materials? Should their awards—if any—be revoked?

In many cases, I find this belief to be slightly misguided. I am not saying that we should accept or excuse any form of behaviour. There are many heinous behaviours or crimes that should have some societal consequences, such as some form of public shunning. However, we need to stop operating under the assumption that excellence in one area also by necessity translates into moral excellence.4 It should not come as a surprise to us if our heroes indeed appear to have feet of clay. In some cases, this may even make them more human. We might not recognise ourselves in the genius of our heroes, but we can easily recognise ourselves in their flaws! Moreover, we need to be cognisant of the fact that many human endeavours do not require moral excellence.5 You do not have to be morally excellent to perform well in sports, mathematics, or gardening…

A straightforward consequence of these observations could be not to have any heroes at all any more: no more awards, no more eulogies, no more naming things after people. This strikes me as extreme and counterproductive. Another option could be to pick our heroes more wisely—but do we really truly know enough about them in advance? Before I discuss a few suggestions out of this mire, I want to present one of the quotes that stuck with me for a while now. It is due to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and appeared in his book The Gulag Archipelago:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

This quote serving as our guiding principle, here are some suggestions to overcome societal Donatism:

  1. We need to learn to endure ambiguity. Few people are fully good or fully evil. Slapping labels on them reflectively and without due process is not helpful. A person can both be an excellent composer and harbour despicable political views. A scientist can be at the top of their field and still be an insufferable human being. We have to ask ourselves what kind of behaviour or accomplishments we want to reward and acknowledge in the public sphere.
  2. When dealing with such cases, we need intellectual honesty. That is, we need to carefully incorporate the context of quotes or actions, and must not intentionally present a misleading narrative. Intellectual honesty also means that we are free to say ‘I lack the facts to form a full opinion.’ We must not let ourselves be dragged into every skirmish, lest we are forced to pick a side in a battle in which we should not participate in the first place.
  3. Last, and this is the most important aspect, we need forgiveness. Nowadays, the internet makes it extremely easy to be haunted by thoughts of our younger selves. We should not think of all opinions as being permanent. People change and mature, often resulting in adopting a different set of beliefs. I believe that people can change and have a right to redeem themselves.

So should we still lavish praise on persons, regardless of their behaviour in other domains? I have no proper answer for this—I posit that ‘It depends’ is probably the fairest option; this has to be a discussion about what we as a society want to accept! In general, I find it easiest to praise the accomplishments of an individual, without implying that these accomplishments indicate any moral stance. Again, nuance is key for me here. We should be able to separate creator from creation; a person’s work can well be excellent, while their character might be horrible.

As a parting thought, I want to emphatically stress that accepting that everyone is at least slightly broken does not mean that we should not make an effort! If we stop denouncing and condemning people vocally, we can achieve a true dialogue and move beyond knee jerk reactions.


  1. To quote Terry Pratchett: ‘A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.’ ↩︎

  2. I find it puzzling how such utterly inane views can persist to this day. ↩︎

  3. This is probably why Donatists were denounced as heretics, leading to a schism of the early Roman Catholic Church. ↩︎

  4. In fact, the hypothesis that this is not the case is the fundamental dilemma underlying the AI control problem or, specifically, the alignment problem. How can we make sure that an AI with arguably more intellectual resources at its disposal than all humans will also align itself with our human values? ↩︎

  5. I firmly believe that moral excellence is helpful, but it is unfortunately not a sine qua non to achieve something. ↩︎