In it for the Money: Crimes and Misdemeanors

When we know someone's secret, we feel a certain way about ourselves, not just about the other person.

I want to talk about Dylan Farrow’s open letter, published on the New York Times blog on February 1. But I don’t particularly want to talk about Woody Allen, or rape, or patriarchy, or the law [1].

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

I want to talk about rhetoric.

I want to talk about rhetoric, and moral decision making, and a funny little blind spot built into our cognitive hardware.

At 942 words, Dylan Farrow’s open letter is one of the most brilliant pieces of persuasive writing I’ve seen in years. It’s strength stands on three legs.

First and foremost, Farrow’s letter opens and closes with a question, which is an established marketing tactic [2]: Humans naturally want to give assistance, and our minds rise unbidden to answer questions. We might be able to tamp down that inclination long enough to keep the answer from flying out our mouths or fingers, but we still rise to the question in our heads, and that’s all Farrow needs here. She needs us to engage her claim, which we might not be inclined to do if it was flatly stated.

Second is the powerful juxtaposition in the first two sentences:

1. “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?”

2. “Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house.”

The juxtaposition implies an association, but does so without demanding we parse anything complicated. We are first asked a question – with which we reflexively engage. Then we’re given a very evocative declarative image.

Finally, that associative juxtaposition connects Woody Allen with violation, and activates a deep, pre-rational aversion buried in our hardware of our brains: We do not like to be associated with unclean things. Those two sentences associate Allen with this fundamentally repugnant violation in a way that speaks to our deep brain without engaging the rational surface layer.

If Farrow had flatly stated her claim – something like: “When I was seven years old Woody Allen raped me. You should not enjoy his films.” – our clever, lately evolved, logic-obsessed prefrontal cortices would balk, tossing up all sorts of rational roadblocks (It’s nonsense! The one thing has no bearing on the others! My favorite Woody Allen film was released three years before the events in question! ). The two sentences, as I’ve presented them, are literally non-sequitur; the one does not follow from the other in any obvious logical fashion.

Farrow’s rhetorical touch is brilliant, because she sidesteps our rationalizations, and directly engages our deep-seated imperative to distance ourselves and our loved ones from anything unclean. [3]

As such, Dylan Farrow’s question is much larger than one specific time and place, or one specific artist’s work: In everyday commerce, how do we decide how deeply we want to engage with people who we are fairly confident have done terrible things?

All of this is a bit outside the areas of my expertise [4], so I called Ari Kohen.

Kohen is the Schlesinger Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln). His research and writing focus on human rights, heroism, and moral decision making, and he is the author of both “In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-Religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World” and “Untangling Heroism: Classical Philosophy and the Concept of the Hero.” Most importantly, Ari has experience working closely with death row inmates – that is, men whose deplorable actions are documented and undisputed.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Kohen and I attended high school together in Metro Detroit, where we were in Ergasterion [5] together. He plays a mean Sancho Panza and introduced me to the films of Kevin Smith. I don’t recall him ever giving two craps about the work of Woody Allen, which is something he reiterated at the start of our conversation.

Ari Kohen: You know, I think there’s a couple ways to think about it. The first thing is that, clearly, people are trying to do what you’re suggesting, right? And that is, to say that these things are not separable, the art and the artist. [ . . . ] That we should feel, all of us, some sort of moral responsibility if we want to say Woody Allen is some sort of comedic genius, or filmmaking genius, [because] he’s also allegedly, you know, a child rapist – or however we want to characterize it.

I don’t entirely know how I feel about that, in part, I guess – and here I’m going to retreat back to what I said a minute ago – in part because I didn’t really care about Woody Allen movies. I’ve seen some of them, but I don’t see myself defined by them, or measure my life in Woody Allen films. They never struck the same chord with me that they struck with other people. So, I can leave Woody Allen films alone and say I’m making a moral choice. I don’t think that that would be true; I’m making a purely aesthetic choice [ . . . ]. So I’m giving myself more credit than I deserve. But people who are taking sides and not taking his side want us to have this be a moral thing. We’re going to say “Art made by bad people should be considered off limits,” or something. [But] I think it’s very clear that bad people have made great art for a long time.

[ . . . ]

At this point in the interview Kohen and I sorta stumble over each other with several examples of good art made by bad folks [6]. Kohen settles on comparing the current furor to a remarkably similar media frenzy in 2003, when Roman Polanski was nominated for an Oscar. At that point Polanski hadn’t been in the U.S. for 25 years, having fled the country in 1978 after pleading guilty to charges of “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a thirteen year-old girl. Interestingly, that woman – Samantha Geimer – became the most notable and persuasive proponent of separating judgements of Polanski’s work from judgements of his character.

AK: The other side of this is that I consistently tell people, when I talk about the death penalty and people on death row, is that it’s troubling to judge someone by the worst thing he ever did, and say “This is the measure of the man.” This is a point I got long ago from Sister Helen Prejean, she says it all the time, that any one of us would hate to be thought of as the worst thing we ever did. I think there’s some merit to that. I think most people want to draw a line and say “Well, not when it comes to murder; murderers are murderers and that is the most relevant fact about them,” and they’d make the same case about child rapists, or pedophiles, whatever; that’s what you are.

But I try – and it’s stressful – but I try not to think of people that way, not to think of people as monstrous, and not to think about people as being that worst thing, but as having made terrible decisions and having made atrocious mistakes, or having acted on terrible impulses. It’s difficult, and it’s one of the hardest things to talk to people about when you talk about criminals and people in prison. [. . . ] Because, generally, free people think of themselves as being very, very different from [criminals and] incarcerated people, that there’s a fundamental break between someone who is in prison and someone who is not in prison. [. . .] The idea that they could, or that someone they love could be, in prison is a shocking idea, because they are categorically different.

I used to speak pretty frequently about my interactions with Ronnie.

“Ronnie” here is Ronnie Frye, a death-row inmate Kohen worked with when Kohen was a graduate student at Duke University. Here’s a 2011 post by Kohen about Ronnie, his life, and his death. It begins: “Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my friend Ronnie Frye. He was poisoned to death in the middle of the night by the government of the State of North Carolina, on behalf of its citizens, in revenge for the 1993 murder of Ralph Childress.” Because Kohen doesn’t make it super clear until later, I want to mention now that Frye did not dispute the facts of the case: That he, armed with a pair of scissors, robbed and brutally murdered his landlord. [7]

AK: People were offended and upset when I just sort of talked about [Ronnie] as a person, about what he liked and didn’t like, what he talked about – and my experience of what a genuinely nice guy he was, caring and kind and compassionate. And, you know, I always explained how very different my interactions with him were from the person he was when he went in. The person who had committed a terrible crime was the same physical body, but also, you know, incredibly addicted to drugs and alcohol. The person that I met wasn’t [addicted to drugs], and hadn’t been for some time, and that makes a big difference. The person who went in was on the very, very edge of society, living in an unheated trailer that he couldn’t pay the rent on. The person I met was living in prison, where he was actually doing very well. The institution of prison was something that worked for him. [. . .]

Most of them [death row inmates] don’t make any representation to innocence. The guys that I met were willing to talk about what had happened, and willing to talk about the circumstances that led to what had happened, and, in some sense, I do think that makes it easier.

I used to do these speaking tours with an organization called the Journey of Hope, which is murder victims’ family members, former death-row inmates, family members of men who are on death row, and activists, who go around the state each year for two weeks and do a public-education speaking tour about the death penalty. The thing that always struck me was the guys who’d been exonerated, who had spent years on death row for crimes they hadn’t committed. They all acknowledged – almost every one of them acknowledged – the fact that they did something. They came to the attention of the police for some [legitimate] reason, it just turned out that [. . .] they hand’t done this.

[. . .]

So I do think there is something to this idea that the full story, or coming to terms with something that you’ve done, is important to us. . . . I do think that this notion, that either protesting your innocence against long odds or a total lack of acknowledgement that there’s even a question out there, that has to be disturbing. We want some kind of recognition, some idea that we’re all on the same page here. If you found something online about a person and that person persists in acting as though it simply doesn’t exist, there’s something very disconcerting about that.

This next part is going to seem to drift pretty far afield, but stick with it. The inciting question begins with me re-iterating how Dylan Farrow’s open letter really got to me. I was helpless as I attempted to avoid meeting her demand that I take a position on her claims and Allen’s evasiveness. And what really unnerved and perplexed me was how disturbed I was by the idea of associating myself with someone who had been accused of sexual assault and failed to respond meaningfully. Because the thing is, as part of my work, or owing to a series of social coincidences, I had knowingly taught or tutored or worked alongside or dined with more than a few admitted felons and at least one un-punished war criminal [8]. This seemed to me somewhat problematically contradictory: Convicted murderer? Sure, I’ll help you with your essay! Accused rapist who won’t even really address the accusations? I, umm . . . I got some stuff to do, but, ahhhhmm. . .

I ultimately asked Kohen:

David Erik Nelson: So, should we feel obliged to take a position on [Dylan Farrow's open letter], or does this lead us down a rabbit hole? I mean, statistically speaking, Jesus!, if I go around for a day, buy some gas, go to the grocery store, there are strong odds that I’m going to engage in a financial exchange with someone who is guilty of rape, who is guilty of murder – regardless of whether or not they’ve been caught – who’s committed an assault – who’ve done any number of things that I find loathsome. And it seems like it leads us to paralysis to all of a sudden wonder to what degree we need to shun people [or businesses] . . .”

AK: “Right. Part of it is a question of knowing and unknowing, right? If you do something without any knowledge of it – I mean, there’s a statistical chance, a likelihood even, that our daily interactions with people [unknowingly] bring us into contact with unsavory characters. But on the other hand, if you say, “I’m going to go shopping at this place that’s definitely run by a murderer,” that’s a quite different thing, right?

[. . .]

I haven’t been to a Shell gas station since 1995. Because, in 1995, when we both started off in college, the Nigerian government and Shell were working together, and Shell was at least indirectly – although I would say more directly – responsible for a number of executions that took place in Nigeria, the most prominent of which was Ken Saro-Wiwa, the author. I was working with Amnesty International, and we had a big Nigerian student community at Michigan State, so I got very involved in the situation in Nigeria with Shell and the Niger River delta, and so that was a position [boycotting Shell] that a bunch of us took. And I still don’t buy Shell gas. I have lots of choices, though; I don’t have to buy Shell. I can go wherever I want. But I like to tell people I don’t buy Shell gas, because then I get to talk about the issue. And maybe it’s the same thing with [. . .] Woody Allen. I don’t watch Woody Allen movies anyway, but having a conversation about the moral weight of our decisions is one that I want to have.

[ . . . ]

We all know [that] my boycott of Shell and your boycott of McDonald’s [9], no matter how many people we tell about it, it’s not impacting those companies in the least. But it’s worth doing for us, and maybe also for the people we talk to, [because] you’re expanding this circle of moral decision making and encouraging people to think more critically about their actions, their purchases, their associations. I generally think there’s a fair bit of good that we do when we spend time thinking about the ramifications of what we’re buying and what we’re doing. . . . Even if you don’t have a good answer, thinking about it at least gets you somewhere.

[Woody Allen] is not being forthright, and so we ought to feel uncomfortable with his defense. I think it would be the same thing if I was associating with someone who found himself in prison and said, “Yes, but – ” That was never what I heard from Ronnie, it was never “I did this, but – ” All the “but” came from me, I was always the one – when I spoke about him, I provided the context, but when I spoke to him, the context didn’t matter to him. He was not someone who wanted to argue that – even when we were trying to put together an argument to save his life, based on his situation growing up, where he was the victim of really unbelievable abuse, he didn’t want to have anything to do with that. It had to be pressed upon him. Because he had done it [murdered his landlord, Ralph Childress, using a pair of scissors], and in his way he’d come to terms with what he’d done, and it was something he knew he had to seek forgiveness for, and he couldn’t get that from the family of the victim because he couldn’t have any contact [with them], but he was not at all about contextualizing it. He was about saying “This is what happened.”

[. . .]

I would say that’s the difference [between convicted murderer Ronnie Frye and whatever-label-you-want-to-insert-here Woody Allen], and I think that’s actually something that you started us off with, that whole idea of kind of a narrative or something, and how we react to having or not having that narrative. It’s always hard to hear “I’m innocent, I’m innocent, I’m innocent,” especially when it certainly doesn’t seem like it. [. . .] And I think it becomes much easier to stand next to someone who says “I’m innocent of this, but I accept all these other things.” In part – and this is a strange thing, but I think this is probably true – I would be very, very sympathetic to a Woody Allen who said, “Here are the terrible things that I did, and I need to pay for them, I need to ask forgiveness, I need to work on myself, I need to seek all sorts of mental health assistance, I need to go to prison.” – whatever. That becomes a person I can really understand, and a person that I can really work with.

I’m glossing a bit here, because the conversation is garbled – Kohen and I are old friends, albeit friends who haven’t spoken at length in over 15 years – but what we come to is a fairly satisfying explanation for why it is that Kohen can feel comfortable befriending a repentant murderer and I can be comfortable dining with an unrepentant war criminal, but neither of us would be comfortable hanging out with Woody Allen: In the grand arc of history, it’s pretty easy to concoct a rational defense for “rewarding” the forthright criminal by allowing him to return to the fold. There’s a clear social utility to us being comfortable with people who are honest, especially when what they are being honest about is extremely, extremely unpleasant.

AK: This is not just something that I’m coming up with by the seat of my pants this hour. Having done work studying the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, for example, you see the same thing: [For] people who come forward and say “This is what I did, this is the truth of the matter,” the finding, typically, of the Commission was to say “Because you were forthright and your crime was political in nature as we’ve defined it, you get amnesty for that crime.”

For a lot of people that seemed really problematic, but it seems exactly right to me: Here’s someone who was acting in this way at this particular time for this reason, and this is what happened, and maybe they expressed contrition, and maybe they didn’t, and then they moved forward with their lives. And then they contributed to the narrative of their country: Now we know more about what happened than we knew before, and that’s the goal of this, that’s how we start to move toward reconciliation, and that will continue moving forward. What disrupts that is people who don’t come forward, or don’t tell the truth.

At this point in our conversation I abruptly remember something I’d read in the opening pages of Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion [10]:

A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do. [Harvard social psychologist Ellen] Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: Ninety-four percent of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line. Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Under those circumstances, only 60 percent of those asked complied. At first glance, it appears that the crucial difference between the two requests was the additional information provided by the words “because I’m in a rush.” But a third type of request tried by Langer showed that this was not the case. It seems that it was not the whole series of words, but the first one, “because,” that made the difference. Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer’s third type of request used the word “because” and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” The result was that once again nearly all (93 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information, was added to justify their compliance. Just as the “cheep-cheep” sound of turkey chicks triggered an automatic mothering response from maternal turkeys – even when it emanated from a stuffed polecat – so, too, did the word “because” trigger an automatic compliance response from Langer’s subjects, even when they were given no subsequent reason to comply.

In other words, we like having answers, even if the answers are nonsense. This is that critically dangerous cognitive blind spot. You can hide an enormous monster in a blind spot that size.

I suggested this to Kohen:

DEN: Really what we’re reacting to is the satisfaction of knowing things; having the story is enough for us. And that removes the fundamental discomfort, and once that discomfort is gone, my clever monkey forebrain will make up whatever justifications it wants so I can be satisfied with why I feel better, but in fact I maybe feel better because knowing something awful is better than wondering about it. That’s what eats at us in these situations, and is the real reason we feel the need to comment on it and keep picking at it.

AK: Yeah, that could be. There could be something to the idea that we want to have the information. I wouldn’t discount that. Not simply that, but it could just be that we want to have information [in general]; when I know secrets, when I have an answer, I feel a certain way about myself, not just about the other person. Knowing what you did gives me some measure of comfort, but also of power. I don’t know that we ought to discount that, either. We feel better because we know the person has been more forthright with us, but we also feel better because we know something.

DEN: Well, I’m glad that we could leave this at a nice disturbing place.

AK: Well isn’t that what being human is all about?


[1] Just because I have no interest in writing about these things doesn’t mean you have no interest in reading about them. Here are some of the articles that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been thinking about all this.

[2] I in no way intend to cast aspirations by associating Farrow with marketers; as I’ve tiresomely tagged time and again, most of my living is made in marketing. Apart from that, I’m endlessly fascinated by both the field and its practitioners, who are often the only people with anything useful or interesting to say about the craft of rhetoric.

[3] Just to be clear, the “cognitive blind spot” I flagged in the nut graf isn’t this contradiction between our hardware-level aversions and our high-level rationalizations; that conflict is actually really productive – it’s a feature, not a bug. The “cognitive blind spot” – and it is, like the blind spots in your car, quite dangerous both to you and others – has to do with how we relieve the discomfort of the internal conflict between the Aversion and the Rationalization.

[4] Bed bugs, beauty queens, sitting in bars, burying the lead . . . and so on.

[5] We went to fancy-pants prep school, and that’s fancy-pants prep school talk for “drama club.” If that admission alone is insufficiently mortifying, let me go on to say that I not only appeared on stage (but briefly, as an agent of the Spanish Inquisition; I mostly did tech stuff), but I also directed a production of Vaclav Havel’s absurdist romp “The Memorandum,” in which Kohen stared as a mid-level bureaucrat caught in a Kafkaesque linguistic policy shift. Oh, to once again be young, obtuse nerds!

[6] Predictably, I brought up Wagner, who was such a vicious anti-Semite that to this day Jewish weddings do not play his Bridal Chorus (the tune that children sing as “Here comes the bride / All dressed in white . . .”) For a fascinatingly fact-free treatment of this topic, please see this thread on the Field & Stream magazine website forums.

[7] If you’re looking for more details about the facts of this case, this “Murderpedia” article is quite complete. (Yeah, I know: I cringe at the name of that site, too, but it’s actually a pretty reasonable endeavor, collating publicly available articles, briefs, documents, and filings related to U.S. murder cases.)

[8] I’m well aware of how alarming that sentence just got. Don’t worry! I’ll explain the whole thing in excruciating detail in April.

[9] This is sort of involved, but I haven’t eaten McDonald’s in almost two decades. This isn’t really a boycott, exactly, it’s just that in the mid-1990s someone (I think maybe my younger sister) mentioned that she’d heard that the concessions in Dachau were run by McDonald’s – not while it was a concentration camp, but now, at the memorial that’s been erected there. I have no idea if this is true or not, and such a thing was much more challenging to fact-check in 1990-whatever, but it struck me as such a remarkably weird juxtaposition that I half-jokingly vowed not to eat McDonald’s again until I did so at Dachau. But then I kept not-eating at McDonald’s – because, you know, I’m holding out until I can do so as a demonstration of the tenacity of World Jewry, or whatever – and, I dunno, a couple decades slipped by. Here we are: My off-hand joke matured through its adolescence as political statement, and has become some sort of obtuse performance art.

[10] Although it wasn’t Cialdini’s original purpose in writing the book, it’s become something of a bible for salesman, marketers, and business people in general (both innocuous and nefarious). Also, the book hasn’t aged terribly well – as some of Cialdini’s examples have been overturned by later scrutiny and new research. But his examples are beyond numerous, and the foundation of the work remains rock solid. All that said, “Influence” is, alongside Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics,” one of the few works of non-fiction that I strongly urge all humans read.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. So if you’re already supporting us on a regular basis, please educate your friends, neighbors and colleagues about The Chronicle and encourage them to support us, too!

One Comment

  1. By Mortrefuge
    March 7, 2014 at 7:14 pm | permalink

    The problem I have with Dylan’s open letter is that many of details appear to be cribbed from Maureen Orth’s original 1992 Vanity Fair article. And some details are re-characterized in a way that doesn’t feel honest and done in a way to make the maximum amount of damage. In the November 2013 article Dylan stated that she didn’t remember much but she remembered what happened in the attic and she remembered what she was and wasn’t wearing. She also stated that it was something that only happened once and everything else was everyday weirdness. Compare that the very specific details from her open letter. I agree that Allen does fail to address the pain he caused by taking Soon Yi away from Mia’s family. I suspect that it’s something he can’t admit even to himself much less to anyone else. So in a way he is probably as self-deluded as anyone in this drama. However that doesn’t mean we must automatically believe that Dylan is telling the truth. Only that for whatever reason she believes it to be true. Which is a subtle but telling difference.