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Stephen King and the warped morality of identity politics

Liberals as a whole still tend to believe that people (and the art they make) deserve to be judged individually and on their own merits

January 14, 2020

5:11 PM

14 January 2020

5:11 PM

As per longstanding annual tradition, Hollywood yesterday woke up early to announce the 2020 Academy Awards nominees — and Twitter, as per slightly more recent annual tradition, woke up to be annoyed when the list of Oscar-worthy actors, writers, directors, and other filmmaking professionals was, as always, not particularly diverse. 

That this year’s nominees could still be so overwhelmingly white and male was a particular slap in the face, especially since the Academy made a highly public move in 2019 to avoid exactly this outcome. July of last year saw the introduction of 842 new members, half of them women, into the Academy’s voting ranks, with many spectators anticipating a wave of awards-season recognition for female and minority-led films as a result. But the fact that these new members apparently didn’t vote along identity lines is a conversation for another time; with the #OscarsSoWhite2020 conversation stretching into its second day, a single villain reliably (if unwittingly) stepped forward to draw the ire of disgruntled commentators. 

Stephen King, the prolific author who made a cameo last year in the (non-Oscar-nominated) movie adaptation of his novel It, weighed in on Tuesday morning with a take on his own voting principles. On Twitter, he wrote:

‘As a writer, I am allowed to nominate in just 3 categories: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Screenplay. For me, the diversity issue — as it applies to individual actors and directors, anyway — did not come up. That said… I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.’


The ellipsis in the above quote marked a break between the two unthreaded tweets, which arguably made matters worse: while the first statement garnered little attention, the second was met with a wave of condemnation. King was accused of cluelessness, racism, and intentional discrimination against marginalized artists; the replies became a sea of ‘OK boomer’ gifs; and (as will surprise absolutely nobody who has an even passing familiarity with Twitter culture) a not-insignificant number of people expressed their sociopathic wishes that the driver who hit King in a 1999 accident had been driving a heavier car.

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King has come under fire for insensitivity before, both on Twitter (where he memorably had to apologize for using the words ‘palpable bitchery’ in a tweet about Dylan Farrow) and in his work, where he’s been dinged for employing the ‘magical negro’ trope in his depiction of black characters —  a criticism that may be fair (not all King’s older works have aged well by contemporary woke standards) but arguably fails to recognize the author’s record of political progressivism both on and off the page. King is an avowed, longstanding, and earnest member of the political left (one of his favorite activities, both online and off, is pushing for the ouster of Republican senator Susan Collins over her perceived deference to Donald Trump); if anyone has earned the right to a little charity, he has. But that’s what makes this controversy so predictable…and tiresome. 

This penchant for eating our own may not be unique to the left (see: the deranged responses from die-hard Trump supporters when Republican party members express ambivalence about their Dear Leader), but its prevalence at this moment and in response to this type of comment should give us pause. The gleeful outrage over King’s tweet is reminiscent of the response to Bernie Sanders, another New England resident of a certain age with unimpeachable progressive bona fides, when he invoked ‘a non-discriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for,’ as he announced his 2020 presidential campaign. 

That statement was met with a wave of derision from the usual suspects, who mocked it as hopelessly passé. But where the inevitable screeching from the Twitter left fades, the value system underpinning statements like these does not — and despite what vocal critics may prefer, those values are ubiquitous. It may be controversial to say so in certain online spaces, but liberals as a whole still tend to believe that people (and the art they make) deserve to be judged individually and on their own merits, not just as a matter of fairness, but as a matter of decency. When King says that anything else would be wrong, he doesn’t mean factually; he means morally. 

This kind of explicit talk about values may not come naturally to liberals, especially those old enough to remember when the word was synonymous with Republican politics (and more specifically with pearl-clutching 1990s pushback against the perceived threats of same-sex marriage and sexual libertinism on the left.) But given the fractiousness of our present moment, maybe it’s time to make clear that when people like Stephen King or Bernie Sanders talk about rejecting a framework that would require them to see people as members of identity groups first and individual human beings second, what they’re talking about goes deeper than policy, privilege, or pure self-interest. It’s a matter of conscience and principle, as deeply-held as any. And maybe, considering what’s at stake, it’s time to stop punishing those who say so out loud.


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