Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Better Angels

If you read my books, you’ve heard of Gavin de Becker, because in my author notes I frequently cite his excellent book The Gift of Fear.

And if you read the news, you’ve heard of him because he’s working with Jeff Bezos in connection with the National Enquirer’s blackmail attempt.

This morning, I came across the following open letter de Becker wrote years ago to Hollywood talent agent Ari Emmanuel in connection with Mel Gibson’s infamous drunken tirade. It is so worthwhile—and so applicable to our toxic social media zeitgeist, in which the common default setting is to assume (and accuse) the worst of anyone we disagree with—that I’m posting it here. I hope it will be widely read. If you agree that it’s worth considering, please share it.


Dear Ari:

My comments here are not personal; I don’t know you, and Mel Gibson is not a client. Rather, I’m writing about ideas. I read your letter urging the industry to take action “by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him.” I expect you will one day forgive him—at that moment, you’ll see firsthand that words spoken in the heat of one situation don’t always retain their meaning over time.

About his alleged anti-Semitism, you wrote, “Now we know the truth.”

I haven’t found a lot of truth in drunken tirades. A drunken spouse spits out the words, “I never loved you anyway!” Is that truth? A drunken idiot boasts that he can “take on the whole goddamn bunch of you, you bastards, come on, I’ll kick your asses.” Is that truth?

Mel also reportedly said, “I’ll f*ck you” to the Sheriff’s deputy and that he’d spend all his money to get even with the deputy, but you probably don’t believe he’ll retain those ideas over time. You see, we pick and choose which words to invest with credibility. We project motives onto people based upon what their words mean to us, because it’s very difficult to reliably know what their words meant to them at the moment they were spoken (particularly when they’re out of their minds drunk). And we’ve all learned that words don’t reliably represent beliefs. Some people have probably learned that on phone calls with agents, Ari (“You should be getting double what your agents have been getting you; you’re my most important client; I’d never suggest anyone else for that part!”).

After thirty years of predicting intent through assessing words and context, I can tell you if we start taking the things people say when very drunk or very high or very angry as their enduring truth, we’re all going to have to reassess many relationships. Not long ago, one of my sons told me, “I hate you, Man!” I decided he didn’t mean it. Under the Ari-rule, my forgiveness came too easy.

I recognize there is also some history in this situation. People had already speculated on Mel’s views about Jews, so words he might choose could be clues to those views—as we’ve seen on the news. (Do the rhymes represent flippancy about anti-Semitism? No, but it’s hard to tell what’s in someone’s heart, isn’t it?) If one honors the larger context of Mel’s words playing into a preconception some people had, then one must also honor the smaller context: This was crap he said while very drunk, while being arrested, while scared, upset, out of his mind. Is anybody really able to enter that mind and identify “the truth” within all the raw humanness?

You wrote that “alcoholism does not excuse anti-Semitism,” which is obvious. Also true is that alcoholism cannot be used to prove anti-Semitism. You describe your position as “standing up against bigotry.” I suggest that your position is bigotry, bigotry about alcoholism. And more than that, it’s bigotry about humanness itself, for every one of us has said terrible things.

I’ve heard (sober) agents say things so hateful and unkind that even Deputy Mee wouldn’t jot them down. Speaking of stenography during drunk driving arrests, that’s happened all of one time in the history of the planet earth, because cops don’t give much credence to the crap drunk people say. Even the man who was most abused, Deputy Mee himself, even he says, “That stuff is booze talking.” And he says, “I don’t want to ruin his career,” while you advocate ending Mel’s career outright. A list of people who can’t work in this town based on what someone assumes they believe—didn’t Hollywood already suffer that experience?

Your standard would be very tough to apply fairly. If there were suddenly a public transcript of all the thoughts that ran through our heads on our worst days, we’d have trouble finding anyone we’d want to work with—including ourselves.

You refer to “tragically inflammatory statements”—as if Mel had said this stuff while addressing the U.N. You take words that were sputtered in the back of a police car and link them to “escalating tensions in the world.” That’s inflammatory. And the phrases in your letter are the ones long used to inflame: “standing up against; times in history; how much is at stake; cannot stand idly by.”

There is anti-Semitic violence in the world—and there is Mel Gibson. They are two very different things.

For God’s sake, Ari, Mel hasn’t said, “Forget about it!” He’s owned what he did, called it reprehensible, apologized, said he wants to understand the dark places those words came from, has gone into rehab, and hit his saddest rock-bottom—right in front of the whole world. He’s hardly getting away with anything.

When you do forgive Mel, you’ll be in the good company of many Jewish leaders, and if you wonder why so many have been willing to forgive him, consider that Jews, having been profoundly victimized by intolerance, know the value of tolerance.

We all have our prejudices, our bigotry, and our zealotry. It’s all in all of us. We’re built of the same ingredients, just different recipes. Accepting that truth can help us feel compassion for Mel and his family, right now when they need it. But I understand you’re still angry. I truly do. The whole thing will pass, and I’m sure you won’t be going through your client list identifying the ones who’ve said hateful things, abusive things, racist things—and asking the industry to stop working with them too.

You’re the one who boldly said “standing up against bigotry and racism is more important than money.” It’s a position that would be heroic—except for the hypocrisy. We all fall down. How quickly do we get up and make amends? That’s what endures.

—Gavin de Becker
Author of Bestselling Books about Violence and Words
Bar Mitzvah 1968, Graduated Hebrew School 1969
Never Been Really Drunk
Said Plenty of Regrettable Things When Sober


BNorth said...

Very thoughtful - I am going to read his book now. Also, I loved (!!!!)The Killer Collective. Thank you for 2 such wonderful portraits of 2 very different women.

Jontz said...

Brilliantly reasoned, elegantly stated. I will read The Gift of Fear no matter what it's about, as a result of de Becker's letter to Emmanuel. Thank you, Barry Eisler!

iris said...

Wise words. The pompous windbags and armchair experts who espouse that intolerance of human nature should be the norm, mistakes and stupidity unacceptable (except when it comes to the racist, misogynist, homophobic Moron-in-Chief, whose chief contributions to the Nation’s highest office are stupidity and ignorance, what tens of millions of American voters believe are the job’s most important requirements), unforgivable crimes that warrant the offender going away forever, especially if he/she is of the liberal varity - read Al Franken, stabbed in the back by an intolerant, ignorant colleague and his own party - have done irreparable damage to public life. All that’s needed to destroy a person’s life (including that of his/her family and friends) no matter how distinguished his/her achivements, how dedicated public service, are accusations, often anonymous and sometimes planted and paid for. It’s disgusting.

Btw, I just discovered your books, stumbled onto the Killer Collective, which of course led me to the John Rain series

Unknown said...

Very moving. Thanks for sharing. I've just finished the Rain series for the second time. Write on, Mr. Eisler. Also, thanks for including the series in kindle unlimited. Your reading of the audio books is an added bonus.

Unknown said...

Dear Barry
I love your books and Rain but I think you screwed up when you changed the titles. I am so confused as to the books I have read or not. You did not do me a favor. I don't know about others whether they like the change or not but as for me (read above). I ended up buying 2 Zero Sum and I can't return one as it was too late. I am an 86yr old grandmother of 5 and you have always kept me company.
I will keep trying to sort through,
Faye Faraldo

Barry Eisler said...

Hi Faye, I always hated the covers and titles my previous publisher selected for the Rain books--I found them silly, hard to tell apart, and in general not connected with anything meaningful in the stories. I could be wrong, but I’ve always believed that, with the right titles and covers, the books would have a better chance of reaching a wider audience. So when I got my rights back, along with the ability to finally make packaging decisions for myself, I changed the titles to something I think is more appropriate to the stories and better suited to attracting new readers.

I've done everything I could think of to alert previous readers to the changes, including adding an explanation at the beginning of each new edition, accessible through Amazon's "Look Inside" feature; and placing "Previously Published as" prominently on every book's cover, in bold face at the top of the product description, and even in the titles themselves. I've even uploaded customer images of the previous covers and titles, along with a "Previously published as" note for each.

In fact, if you can think of a way I could more clearly communicate to readers what I've changed and why, I'd be grateful if you would share it with me, because I certainly wouldn't want anyone to mistakenly buy the same book twice.

As for Zero Sum, I'm not sure what caused the confusion there, because I changed the titles only to the first six Rain books. Zero Sum is the original title of that book, and has never been changed.

Thank you for the feedback, and for enjoying the books, and apologies for any confusion the title changes have caused.