• Paul D. Wilke

Damnatio Memoriae and the Purging of Toxic Males

Damnatio memoriae (condemning of memory) is a modern Latin phrase used to describe the ancient Roman practice of posthumously erasing someone from the public record. This was the usual fate for the losers in the many power struggles that rocked the Roman world. Sejanus, for example, who served as the praetorian prefect for the emperor Tiberius, was erased from the record after his dramatic fall from power in 31 C.E. His statues were destroyed and his name removed from the public records. Every public trace of him was annihilated. Likewise, the co-emperor, Geta, was murdered by his brother Caracalla in 211 C.E. and erased in a similar way that removed all traces of the dead brother. Guess which one is Geta below:

But the Romans didn't have a monopoly on damnatio memoriae. Josef Stalin was also adept at wiping out the unworthy, something he did quite efficiently with an enormous terror apparatus at his disposal. During the Great Purge of the late 1930s, Stalin used his total control of the government to annihilate his political opponents (real or perceived). Since many of the accused were members of the Old Guard and respected revolutionaries with strong communist bona fides, it was first necessary to reshape public perceptions. These men now had to be viewed as traitors, not heroes. Once that had happened, once the accused publicly confessed to fabricated crimes, then the system annihilated them from the record. They became un-personed. Stalin did this when one of his most murderous henchmen, the Sejanus of the Soviet Union, Nikolai Yezhov, fell from power. Now guess which one is Yezhov below:

Which gets us to the present version of damnatio memoriae. Every day seems to bring more revelations about rich and powerful assholes who get off preying on the vulnerable. Sex scandals involving Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, and now Louis C.K all follow a similar pattern: men who abuse power for their own sexual gratification. Sexual predation by the powerful is one of the oldest practices in the world. Yet, we're still shocked that it happens.

Nevertheless, society seems to have reached a tipping point on tolerating this sort of abhorrent behavior. What was tacitly accepted just a few years ago is no longer. As more accusers come forward telling the same stories, the charges start to gain credibility and become harder to ignore. When the accused finally own up to the charges, or offer up unconvincing or tone-deaf explanations, the scandal eventually reaches a fever pitch in the media. The culture industry then finds itself in an uncomfortable predicament. What to do?

First off, don't think for a moment that the response originates from any moral awakening that goes beyond a cynical economic calculus. Here, as with so much in our society, ethical matters begin and end with profit and loss. The mighty dollar is the final arbiter of virtue, even if we pretend otherwise. The worry among Hollywood elites is that we, the almighty consumer, may choose not to spend our hard-earned money paying sexual abusers to entertain us. Therefore, the accused becomes liabilities by tarnishing the very brand that the media corporations work so hard to cultivate.

That image is the worship of success, diversity, empowerment, individuality, and inclusiveness. Overtly bad male behavior is inimical to this image, even while the ones promoting it are also the perpetrators. They at least know what to preach, even if they don't practice. To avoid destabilizing this mutually beneficial relationship between culture producer and consumer, the industry must show that it is acting to deal with the situation in an ethically responsible way.

There is one tool Hollywood has and it is a powerful one. It almost entirely controls what we see and how we see it. To participate in modern pop culture today necessitates this dependence. After all, the American public spends most of its free time consuming media of some sort, whether television, internet, radio, or print. To be culturally literate today requires this symbiotic relationship between producer and consumer. For all their apparent power, the accused are merely cogs in the cultural production system, and that is their fatal weakness, for this power is more illusory than real and subject to forces beyond their control.

That also makes them disposable. As long as there is no scandal, no public outcry, no unrelenting series of sordid accusations piling on one after the other, then there's no need to take any punitive action. But as soon as the accused become liabilities, then the culture industry deploys its antibodies to annihilate the cancer cells these men have become and the bad PR they represent.

As we have seen with Weinstein and Louis C.K., rumors and bad reputations within the industry are not enough to destroy those in power. People knew for years that Harvey Weinstein was a serial abuser of women; people knew for years that Louis C.K. liked to masturbate in front of women, and yet both of their careers flourished anyways because, for victim and perpetrator alike, it was easier (read - more profitable) to go along to get along.

It was business as usual in these cases and there was a tacit understanding that sometimes a quid pro quo was the price for fame, that sometimes you have to do humiliating and disgusting things for a shot at the prize. Sometimes you have to watch a middle-aged celebrity jerk off. Whatever. Paying one's dues and all that bullshit rationalizes a system that promotes abuse and complicity. Skewed power dynamics are easy to justify, especially if they are working in your favor.

And so our own damnatio memoriae is born. It's really little more than PR damage control by an industry that fears scandal will threaten the bottom line. Spacey was fired from "House of Cards" on Netflix, with production of the show halted midway through the sixth and final season. Ridley Scott will reportedly spend ten million dollars to cut Kevin Spacey out from his already finished movie, "All the Money in the World," and replace him with actor Christopher Plummer.

These actions are done, not because what Spacey did is judged morally wrong, per se, but because what he did is deemed bad for box office sales, and his bad behavior is too much in the public eye at the moment. For this film to succeed at the box office, Spacey must be ostentatiously redacted and then replaced to wipe the slate clean. Only then can we, the emotionally fragile public, in good conscience enjoy the movie.

Damnatio memoriae.

Louis C.K. was likewise dropped by HBO, Netflix, FX, and Universal Studios after admitting that the accusations against him were true. Not only that, but the three networks pulled all of C.K.'s past work from "on-demand" services. The release of his new movie, set to come out in November, was canceled. His new comedy special set to air on Netflix has been canceled. Everything C.K. did before is now nullified, poisoned, and spoiled by his kink.

The signs were all there, the rumors were too many to ignore, but insiders and the viewing public ignored them for years. We all laughed at Louis's self-deprecating dirty jokes and paid to watch his shows and see his acts. Business was too good to make a fuss, at least until now. Now, Louis C.K. is experiencing his own personal Singularity, where everything that came before the New York Times exposé will be irrevocably different from everything that comes after.

Damnatio memoriae.

Harvey Weinstein, for years one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and a player in the Democratic Party, is now deservedly a pariah, fired and shunned by the very community that once worshiped him. Similarly, reruns of Bill Cosby's past work on television were pulled, and his new show was canceled. Billy Bush (the other person in the Access Hollywood Tape) was fired from "The Today Show" and has remained toxic in the industry ever since. For some, there will be no redemption narrative; the sins are too egregious to forgive in our newly dawning age of secular sexual puritanism. They are purged, forgotten, warning signs to the rest of us men about the perils of "toxic masculinity" and "male privilege."

And we say good riddance!

For all the moral outrage we're getting every day from the media, the average person's views are much more ambivalent about what should happen to these guys. In other words, there's some welcome and much-needed nuance. On the one hand, there's genuine outrage and revulsion to hear the details of what happened. People are angry at the hypocrisy and abuse these men engaged in.

On the other hand, there's a Christian disposition to forgive ingrained in our society that makes us sympathetic and willing to accept an honest redemption of sinners. Even if we keep it to our secret selves, most people understand that we've all been guilty of unfortunate moral lapses, some of which were pretty awful. This self-awareness, whether it comes from religion or elsewhere, softens our judgments. We are often quick to judge, yes, but we are also more inclined to forgive.

These are good things.

That's why, for many, the often decades-old allegations don't resonate much with certain segments of the population. Why now, they ask, do these supposed victims even bring it up after twenty or thirty years of silence? Profit? It's why many supporters of Roy Moore (Alabama GOP Senate candidate) stood by him and did not give two shits about what he did in the 1970s and who he did it with. That was then; this is now. Now matters more, and so does winning the election. Move on, they say, nothing to see here—fake news.

To that point, remember Billy Bush? He was fired and ostracized for his part in the almost ten-year-old Access Hollywood tape, while the other guy in that conversation was elected president just three weeks later. That puts us in a weird place today. Even though it's being forced to do so by all the negative PR, Hollywood is nevertheless policing itself better than the so-called value voter conservative electorate is. Such conservatives sold out their values for a win, at any cost, and an electoral reckoning is coming for that mistake.

Even so, it's safe to say that the majority of the accused offenders listed above are done professionally in the film and media world. Forget all the joy, laughs, and thrills people got from the movies and shows these men created over the years. After all, while they were doing all this critically acclaimed work, they were also apparently acting like Glenn Quagmire from the Family Guy: creepy, but not in a funny way. So now they are negated, tainted, and excised from the public consciousness for our own good, for the sanctity of our viewing pleasure, and to protect the culture industry's bottom line that we do so much to feed. We're in this together, after all.

Damnatio memoriae.

#damnatiomemoriae #metoo #sexscandal

Recent Posts

See All