Melbourne writer Bill James asks to what degree Hollywood actor and director Mel Gibson was morally responsible for his anti-Semitic outburst.
In vino veritas has been the most frequent expression used to describe the July 27-28 2006 incident in which Hollywood actor and director Mel Gibson let loose with an outburst of anti-Semitic abuse after being pulled over for drunk-driving and speeding.
Despite Gibson’s subsequent apology for his behaviour, it is generally assumed that he must harbour deep and sincere feelings of hatred for Jews as a result of his upbringing. His father appears to fit the classic mould of the old-fashioned anti-Semite, even down to belief in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Is it actually the case, though, that we reveal our true selves when we are under the influence of alcohol? What about the effect of other drugs, or sickness, or concussion, or medication, or sleep-talking, or sunstroke, or exhaustion, or shock, or any other situation in which we lose full or partial control over what we say?
What about dementia? Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have been known to act and speak completely differently from the way they behaved before onset of the disease.
Six years ago, my mother and father-in-law died within weeks of each other. My mother had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for years, while my father-in-law was just beginning to show signs of mental deterioration. Both said things which, while by no means outrageous or distressing, were out of character with their previous lives and dispositions.
Some cases are more extreme. If senile, sweet, old Aunty takes to cursing and abusing everyone in sight, does that prove that she was always “really” a poisonous misanthrope? If demented, dear, old Grandpa is constantly trying to grope the nurses, does that prove that he was always “really” a filthy lecher?
Are the huge number of baby-boomers who are going to lapse into Alzheimer’s over the next two or three decades happy at looking forward to being assessed by what comes out of their mouths when they no longer know what they are saying?
Or, are we really the person whom each of us chooses to be, despite the pressures and temptations to be someone less than we could be? After all, we all experience internal pressures to think, say and do things which we would be ashamed to have the rest of the world know about. Everyone’s upbringing and background is different, so we might not be tempted to anti-Semitic abuse. But what about those other feelings of resentment or jealousy or greed or self-pity or hatred or pride or inappropriate sexual desire, that pop into our minds intermittently or regularly?
A Catholic such as Gibson, or any other more or less orthodox Christian, would see these tendencies as natural to humanity’s “fallen” state. Others, while not convinced of the innate depravity of humankind (despite G.K. Chesterton’s suggestion that Original Sin is the only theological dogma which can be empirically demonstrated) still have to face the fact that all of us, all the time, struggle with wrong motivations, to which we more or less regularly succumb.
It is unconvincing to argue that they are the constructions of a dysfunctional culture, and would cease to exist in an ideal social system cleansed of all the bêtes noires du jour – racism, gender prejudice and economic inequality.
These days, many would assert that not only do we not have inherently flawed personalities, but that no-one has a single homogeneous personality at all. Postmodern theory claims that we have, always have had, and always will have, an infinite number of fluid personalities, which are constantly merging and overlapping. (This is quite separate, of course, from the psychiatric condition once known as multi-personality disorder, and now known as DID – dissociative identity disorder).
For all practical purposes, however, we assume that each of us has a unified and unique identity, which can change over time, but which never ceases to retain some semblance of integrity, and some sort of continuity with its past. How this personality manifests itself is always, to some degree, under our control. That is, we decide on the sort of person whom we want to be, and we deserve to have that choice respected.
To come back to Mel Gibson. Gibson might, as a result of his parenting, suffer from an intense compulsion to think of Jews as despicable and dangerous. However, he has decided that these feelings are wrong, and to be resisted. If he comes out with anti-Semitic statements when drunk, and then apologises, we are obliged to take that apology at face value.
John Maynard Keynes famously said, “When I find out that I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?” If we later discovered that sweet old Aunty, prior to her post-dementia cantankerousness, had been in the habit of sending off anonymous death threats to those whom she disliked, then we would have no choice but to accept that she really always was a nasty piece of work. Ditto for dear old Grandpa if it later came to light that he had past convictions for sexual assault.
If something concrete ever emerges about Gibson, such as donations to neo-nazi organizations (The Passion of the Christ does not count, because there is no consensus, even amongst Jews, as to whether it is anti-Semitic), then we will be obliged to dismiss him as a genuine anti-Semite. But not until then.
Till then, he is a man struggling with his demons and refusing to submit to them. The real Gibson is the bigotry-renouncer that he chooses to be.
– Bill James is a Melbourne writer.