In his 1963 book, "The Fire Next Time," James Baldwin describes meeting Elijah Muhammad, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. Baldwin felt alienated by Muhammad's black separatism and by his universal hatred of white people; at the same time, he admired Muhammad's acute understanding of the countless ways in which institutionalized white power continued to injure and suppress African-Americans.
"I felt very close to him," Baldwin writes about Muhammad, "and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally and a father." Yet, reflecting on the moment when the two men said goodbye, Baldwin writes, "we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies."
Baldwin was as committed as any writer has ever been. But the stuff of his commitment was a moral clarity steeped in intellectual difficulties and ethical complications — a labyrinthine clarity that he refused to sacrifice to prescribed attitudes.
Today, we still revere Baldwin, but by and large we no longer follow his lead as a thinker. There is little patience now for such a rigorous yet receptive moral and intellectual style; these days we prefer ringing moral indictment, the hallmarks of which are absolute certainty, predetermined ideas and conformity to collective sentiments.
In the process of abandoning the type of complex moral clarity that Baldwin practiced, we have made behavior that is unacceptable the equivalent of behavior that is criminal. An equal amount of fury is directed toward actions as morally — and legally — distinct from each other as rape, harassment, rudeness, boorishness and incivility. The outrage over a police shooting of an unarmed black teenager unfolds at the same level of intensity as the outrage over what might or might not be a case of racial profiling by a sales clerk in a small Brooklyn boutique.
This is intentional: The general feeling seems to be that distinguishing between degrees of morally repugnant conduct will lead to some sort of blanket pardon of all such conduct; that to understand is always to forgive. Such concern is understandable, but misplaced — it flattens and obfuscates, rather than clarifies.
This aversion to suspending moral judgment is a new development in cultural life. We were once gripped by "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's imaginative inhabiting of two convicted murderers, or by "The Executioner's Song," Norman Mailer's empathetic telling of the story of Gary Gilmore, who asked to be executed after he was convicted of killing two men.
These were considered bold, even controversial, at the time, but no one pretended that Capote or Mailer was trying to make excuses for their subjects. Readers and critics understood them as efforts to expand and deepen our awareness of the forces, both inside and outside a person, that shape a human life. It's hard to imagine a similar work being produced in today's climate.
Capote and Mailer didn't invent this method. You could tell the history of Western culture with such instances of skeptical rationalism and imaginative empathy, from Aeschylus' Clytemnestra and Euripides' Medea, to Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and Richard III, Milton's Lucifer, Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, Balzac's master-criminal Vautrin, Dostoyevsky's amoral superman Raskolnikov, Joseph Conrad's terrorists, Thomas Mann's con man Felix Krull, Andre Gide's coldblooded murderer, Albert Camus' helpless murderer — to take a relative handful of examples.
Closer to our own time and place, Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas accidentally kills a white woman in the novel "Native Son," and then rapes and murders a black woman; Gore Vidal wrote with sympathy about Timothy McVeigh; and David Mamet composed "Oleanna," a prescient play about sexual harassment, accusation, guilt and innocence that, famously, had no clear resolution.
Crucially, this tendency did not remain in the preserve of high art. The elevation of moral complexity over moral condemnation, once the special province of high culture, made its way over centuries into mainstream thinking about justice and tolerance, helping to bring us to the enlightened values of modern liberal democracy.
Today, however, our dominant cultural style is very different. We thrill to a kind of pornography of exposing and shaming. We favor predetermined verdicts that have been arrived at by collective sentiment — a cultural style that accuses first, presents evidence often without questioning it, then makes a judicial finding and passes a sentence.
The representative figure of our age is not the poet, the artist, the novelist, the scientist, the businessman, the actor, the athlete, the statesman. It is the prosecutor. There exists a kind of silent censoring of any attempt to understand a person's ugly behavior rather than seeking exclusively to punish it.
If, in a spirit of free intellectual and imaginative inquiry, you dared to suggest that a man who masturbated in front of a woman he barely knew without her consent might have been acting out, in an attitude of aggressive contempt, his own shame and emasculation — if you tried to understand his actions, without justifying them — you would be shouted down and vilified. Imagine the outcry if you went further and speculated about why Harvey Weinstein allegedly manipulated some actresses dependent on his power into watching him while he was naked. Could it be that Weinstein, who reportedly had often been mocked for his appearance, wanted to dehumanize these women as well, while at the same time turning himself into a person who is watched and admired, like a person of beauty?
If even a fraction of the charges against him are true, Weinstein should be banished to the distant reaches of society. But however justice is finally administered in his case, we should try to grasp what social and psychological forces made him what he is, without the distracting din of moral denunciation forbidding us from doing so.
In matters of law and public morality, let justice take its course along the lines of due process and fair play. But in the realm of the free operation of intellect and imagination that is culture, let there bloom the suspension of moral judgment for the sake of a better understanding of our moral natures. It's not because we owe anything to the likes of Harvey Weinstein; it's because of what we owe ourselves.
Lee Siegel is the author, most recently, of "The Draw: A Memoir." He wrote this article for the New York Times.