I loved Bill Cosby when I was growing up. I would listen to his records again and again and again. I all but memorized his “Chicken Heart” sketch. As a kid I had like 7 albums and 5 of them were Cosby records. I just laughed my ass off listening to him. I may never have been more amused by anything in my life.
By the time his horrible crimes became common knowledge, I no longer thought he was producing excellent work. I was not laid low by learning he was an awful person because it would cost me future enjoyment. And it was not just that yet another random public figure turned out to be an awful human being. I felt harmed more personally than that, something closer to being betrayed by a friend. It somehow cost me in the coin of past enjoyment. Obviously it is not that what I learned about Cosby undid what happened in the past. My past happiness and amusement were beyond the reach of his evil. Rather, I could no longer smile down happily on those childhood memories. The past happiness was spoiled somehow. It is almost, but not quite, as if that past happiness happened in an Experience Machine disconnected to reality.
But this effect, if I am describing it in a way that resonates with others, is confusing. My joy was not taken in his evil. My happily dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” was responsive to the music’s excellence, not anything bad about him. Why should we feel our experience is sullied? The music remains excellent. And if the person who made my computer or the medicine I need turns out to be awful, my benefits would in no way similarly be tarnished. It has something to do with our feeling of having something like a personal connection to the comedian or musician that we do not have to the faceless people who benefit us. I think part of appreciating some art forms involves a feeling a positive connection to the author. Oversimplifying, the thought might be “It took a beautiful soul to produce this excellent work and through the work I feel some connection to that beautiful soul.” And this perhaps helps partially explain our sense of betrayal or deception when the unity of the virtues spectacularly splinters in our idols.
I wonder, first, if the experience I am trying to describe is common? I think it is but would be happy for confirmation. Second, I wonder if the initial attempts at explaining it I offer seem on the right track? Third, I wonder if people have other thoughts about what is going on in such cases (or know of other discussions of such cases)?