Steven King’s Not Woke?

Has yet another beloved figure fallen from grace?

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AP PHOTO / MARK LENNIHAN

Steven King’s tweet about diversity in the Oscars has the internet up-in-arms. It’s not hard to understand why. He tweeted,

Has the world blown this comment out of proportion? Or have we just discovered a dark truth about this famous author?

What did he mean?

Now that I’ve read King’s tweet a couple of times, I find it to be poorly expressed. It seems absurd for someone like me to be criticizing his writing, but as an average reader, I find myself guessing at the point he’s trying to make.

What does King mean when he writes, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art”?

I think he could have meant two things.

First, he could have meant that diversity of art is unimportant.

If this is how people are interpreting it, it’s easy to understand why they would be upset. Many of us are already frustrated with Hollywood’s focus on creating art from a single viewpoint (straight, white, male, etc.). If we take this interpretation of King’s remarks, he would be siding with Hollywood and turning his back on the viewpoints of everyone else. This would be disappointing, to put it mildly.

Second, he could have meant he selected his nominees irrespective of sex, skin colour, ethnic background, or other personal traits. Under this interpretation, he wasn’t dismissing diversity of art. Rather, he was dismissing the idea that diversity is an element of quality.

If this is what he meant, it’s much less controversial. Isn’t it better to judge a piece of work based on its attributes rather than the attributes of its creator?

So, assuming these two interpretations that are most likely to be true, which do you think more reasonably expresses King’s thoughts?

For me, the second interpretation is more likely King’s intended point. After all, the context of his post is his ability to vote at the Oscars, not about art itself. I think the purpose of his post was to explain the rationale behind how he votes, which seems to be supported by this part of his tweet:

To me, King is affirming that the personal traits of the creators of the art do not factor into his nominations. He appears to think it would be immoral for him to do so.

Is he wrong?

Is diversity a characteristic of quality?

How do we judge quality? What do we base that kind of assessment on when it comes to art?

Well, it’s subjective, isn’t it? Doesn’t art draw something out of us based on our unique experiences? Quality is in the eye of the beholder, right?

Something popular, then, is going to draw on the shared experiences of a large group of people. This reminds me of the original Shrek. So many of the laughs in that movie come from the writers turning Western fairytale tropes on their heads. But, that humour is only accessible to me because I understand those tropes — they were ingrained in me at a very young age. Without those experiences, I may not have found that movie funny at all.

So, what does it mean to be an “expert” when it comes to judging art forms, like screenplays and films? If what we find interesting or emotional or funny is dependent on our experiences, how can we ever hope to judge anything “correctly”?

I think the simple answer is, we can’t. Each of us has a unique set of experiences that will cause us to react to pieces of art differently than others. It’s not that we can’t come to understand those reactions, it’s that the causes of those reactions don’t exist within us.

We will never fully understand how anyone else interprets art. But, the further apart our life experiences are from someone else’s, the greater the difference will likely be in the interpretation. After all, we only have our experiences upon which to draw. We can’t truly draw from someone else’s experiences.

So, is diversity an element of quality? I don’t think so. But, I do think that a non-diverse set of judges may miss out on quality due to not understanding the point of some art. Just like with Shrek, art is made for a specific audience. If the audience judging a piece of art is not the piece’s intended audience, there is going to be a disconnect there.

Different groups share different experiences. The group can be as large as a continent or as small as a town. We will never understand all those shared experiences, not even if we dedicate a thousand lifetimes to it. We have not lived the lives of others, and they have not lived ours.

In the end, King can only draw upon his experiences to judge the art of others. You might not agree with him, but by choosing to be unbiased he is doing all he can to ensure he isn’t basing his decision on the characteristics of the artists rather than their art.

Yes, you might have made different choices than King because you have different experiences. But, if he isn’t selecting his nominees based on arbitrary characteristics, I think we’re moving in the right direction — toward understanding each other more and better.

Isn’t that movement all we can ask of each other?

Despite a poorly worded tweet, I think King gets it. I think he understands the responsibility he has to try his best to judge art fairly, even while opportunities aren’t fairly distributed among different groups of people.

I think he’s woke. What about you?

Thanks for reading!

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Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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