All entries for Tuesday 29 September 2009

September 29, 2009

Does Genius Excuse Crime? Another Angle on the Polanski Case

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The celebrated and notorious film-maker Roman Polanski has been re-arrested in Zurich for having sexually abused a drugged-out 13-year old girl 32 years ago in the United States, a crime for which he was convicted but he skipped the country before serving time. Nobody has denied that the criminal act occurred. The question is what to make of it now. What is striking is that the artistic community across the world has been virtually unanimous in calling for Polanski’s release, whereas virtually everyone else (though not the victim) wants him to pay for his crime – if not more.

What accounts for this vast difference in sentiment? Well, Polanski is a genius! Let’s assume that this claim is not only true but also relevant to judging his case. How would it be relevant? From his artistic defenders, you might think it has something to do with the quality of his cinematic output. Perhaps we’re supposed to think that Polanski served his prison time by creating great art, which more than makes up for the original heinous act: Community service on a grand scale, if you will.

The only – but crucial – difference, of course, is that Polanski wasn’t coerced by the legal system to create this great art. He just happened to luck out in being that sort of artist. A porn film producer who committed a comparable act, even if his films had bigger box office takings than Polanski’s, would not enjoy comparable sympathy. The late ethicist Bernard Williams, who popularized the phrase ‘moral luck’, actually justified this way of looking at things that would now keep Polanski out of prison.

However, that can’t be right. Is genius nothing but a kind of miracle? On the contrary, I think ‘genius’ should be treated much more literally. After all, ‘genius’ refers primarily to the artist’s state of mind, not his or her output. In cases like Polanski’s, it makes most sense as the flipside of mental deficiency, possessors of which are also often given leniency in rape cases, either because one was too dumb or too crazy to have a fully functioning moral compass -- to put not too fine point on it. But of course one needs to prove mental deficiency in court, which is not always easy. But why not the same for genius? Polanski’s defenders should welcome the opportunity to have his genius demonstrated in a courtroom through a variety of expert witnesses who could testify, in the face of cross-examination, to the necessity of his particular pattern of personal behavior to the quality of art that he has created. Still, just as insanity defenses don't always work in particular cases, neither might the genius defense. 

We don’t have mental deficiency – whether of the cognitive or psychiatric variety – decided by a self-recognized class of ‘deficients’ for legal purposes. So why then allow it for claims of genius, even though that is what much of the artistic community who recognizes Polanski as one of their own seems to wish?

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