Amidst the recent North Korean and Sony affair, hackers revealed an email exchange between Sony executive Amy Pascal and Hollywood producer Scott Rudin. Writing about Barack Obama, Rudin asked Pascal: “Should I ask him if he like Django?”, to which Pascal replied: “12 years” (in reference to 12 Years As A Slave). This was supposed to be an embarrassment for Sony, as the exchange was allegedly racist.
But, we may very well ask: where is the racism in all of this? Racism is the belief that humanity may be neatly segmented in different groups on biological grounds, that there is a natural hierarchy among those groups, and that behavioral traits may be strongly correlated with racial traits. We do not see any hint of this in the email exchange.
Rudin and Pascal simply joked about an African American president enjoying movies that deal with African Americans. It’s safe to assume that Obama, a politician that much profited from being “the first black president” (as we were continuously reminded during his campaign), would enjoy films about African American history. It is not offensive to presume Mike Tyson would enjoy Rocky, or that John McCaine would be interested to watch some nationalist and militarist movie (say, the Rambo series). Boxing and the military are deeply attached to their identity, respectively, and it’s perfectly rational to assume that they would enjoy films that cohere with those identities. African American identity is deeply attached to Obama (he made heavy use of it as a politician, and arguably, was elected because of it), therefore, it’d be safe to assume he would enjoy those films.
Why, then, pick on Rudin and Pascal’s email exchange? Quite obviously: because of America’s racial obsession. But, in that case, the real racists are those who are accusing Rudin and Pascal of making racial remarks: the accusers are projecting their racial obsession on a brief dialogue that, frankly speaking, has little trace of being racist. Racism is not going to go away with this hypersensitivity. Quite the opposite: only by relaxing the standards a bit, will different ethnic groups earn more confidence among them, and will find meaningful ways to come together.
But, there is something even more disturbing here. This is a private communication. You are entitled to have any private thoughts or conversations, no matter how racist they may be. I have fantasized about raping girls, killing politicians, enslaving aboriginals, abusing homosexuals, and many other nasty things. Sometimes I have written these fantasies on my private diaries, or I have shared them with close friends (as Pascal and Rudin did). From a moral point of view, what really matters is the exteriorization: and, in this case, except for now, I have been very careful not to divulge them, so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Beliefs are morally neutral; what may be morally reprehensible is the public communication of them. But, if I keep these beliefs in my diaries or in private emails, there is no harm done. And, if some hacker discloses my diaries, I cannot be held responsible. In fact, I’d be a victim of privacy violation, as I think it’s the case of Rudin and Pascal.
Given this, we should reconsider the Donald Sterling affair. It’ll be remembered that, in a private conversation with his girlfriend, the L.A. Clippers’ owner made some very nasty racial remarks (unlike Pascal and Rudin’s email exchange, these remarks were unquestionably racist). But, did Sterling make these comments publicly? Absolutely not! His girlfriend secretly recorded them without his permission. So, in his private thoughts, yes, Sterling is a racist. But, don’t we all hide some nasty prejudice? Again, what’s morally relevant is the exteriorization of the prejudice. If some exterior agent makes our private thoughts or conversations public, then we are not to blame.
Otherwise, we’d be victims of the thought police. And, in fact, I think that an Orwellian attitude drives the animus against Sterling, Rudin and Pascal. In the struggle against racism, our actions no longer matter; now it’s also about what we think. This is clearly going too far. Suppose some machine were invented to record our dreams. And, suppose that you placidly dream you are a plantation owner that enjoys whipping around black slaves (assuming that dreams reveal personalities, although this is disputed). If some hacker makes public your racist dream, should you be held accountable? Would you owe an apology to African Americans? I vehemently think not. And, I surely think that, anybody who prizes liberty, should share my judgment.