David Byrne in Conversation with David Byrne
I’d like to try taking this absolutely seriously. If I attempt to do that, I find myself asking, “What questions do I ask myself about my work and my life, and about the lives and behaviors of others?” Here are some of those questions; I often don’t have definitive answers.
DAVID BYRNE: David, do you think there are bad people? Do people knowingly do bad things?
DAVID BYRNE: It’s very hard for me to believe that people can knowingly do evil, be bad. I’d prefer to think that somehow people who do bad things honestly believe they are doing them for some greater good. Ends justify the means, in other words. Our capacity for self-deception is boundless, so this belief of mine has some basis in reality and experience. People—people I know and respect—believed strongly that invading Iraq was a good and necessary thing. These people were not Bush supporters, but somehow they convinced themselves this had to be done. They believed this even though there was no proof for any of the justifications being held up for invasion—there were no weapons of mass destruction, for example. I believe these people are essentially good people who let their emotions determine their decision-making as a consequence of 9/11. Many of these people have since recanted and admitted they were mistaken. So that experience agrees with my assumption.
Then, not too long ago, it came out that Nixon and Kissinger knew that the Vietnam War—the American War, as the Vietnamese call it—was unwinnable. They knew this, and yet they chose to continue the war, killing thousands more—many of them innocent civilians—so that Nixon might get reelected. According to my assumption, they must have convinced themselves that reelection, by any means necessary, would justify the lives lost. But this pushed my assumption a little too far; when I read that, it became hard to continue to believe that people are not knowingly evil. I would like to think that these men and others like them are the exception; that most of us, though we often deceive ourselves and others, or justify deceit if we think the ends are good enough, would not go as far as they did. Most of us, I believe, could not commit atrocities with no valid justification.
DB: David, you seem like a generally happy person. Where does happiness come from?
DB: I ask myself this fairly regularly. This morning on the way to the dentist of all places! Money can’t buy happiness, but without the basic necessities, it is indeed harder to be happy. But if we assume everyone could have enough to eat, a roof over their head, security and health—would everyone then be happy? I doubt it. There would be fewer desperately unhappy people, but many people would still be unhappy.
I’ve read that happiness is relative. So even if you have enough of life’s necessities in the above respects, if everyone around you seems to have a lot more, you might be unhappy about that. I’ve read that social media has this effect by making it easy for people to compare themselves to others, so that even if they’re doing fine or looking fine, there is always someone doing better or looking better.
That said, for myself, happiness often comes unexpectedly, for no apparent reason. Of course, it comes when one is with friends or family, but sometimes the reason for its arrival seems completely inexplicable. I think this might be intentional, part of our design. Happiness with friends and family, of course, helps cement those relationships, but what if the occurrence of additional randomized happy moments happens to us in order to keep us exploring, moving, hoping, curious, and open? Otherwise, we’d never leave the company of friends and family, right?
Hard to tell; this question is a real puzzle.
DB: Do you still like living in New York City?
DB: Can the arts change how people think about things? Is it presumptuous of an individual to think they might or should be an agent of change?
DB: I ask myself this all the time. It turns out it’s a few questions rolled into one. First, can the arts effect change? And then, should a creative individual use that skill to attempt to effect change of some sort? What gives them the right?
For the first one, I tend to believe that songs might not be the best medium to effect direct change, but that songs and music do allow individuals to feel less alone, and therefore songs can offer hope and succor. “Your music got me through high school!” I have heard before. Songs build community too—even casual music fans feel an affinity with one another. That’s a good thing! But it’s not about effecting specific social change.
Other mediums—novels, photographs, and movies—do indeed seem to effect changes in attitudes. Charles Dickens’s and Harriet Tubman’s work had huge effects. So did Ayn Rand’s. It cuts both ways. The work of photojournalists brings the greater world home: wars, poverty, injustice. And a recent movie like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (an Indian comedy about a man who struggles romantically because he doesn’t have a toilet) uses humor to effect wider changes in health and sanitation.
So, yes, the arts can effect larger change.
But on to the next part of the question: who are we to use these skills we possess as megaphones to espouse our own social or political beliefs? You know, “Shut up and sing your songs!” In response to this, I do believe that as citizens, all of us actually have a duty to engage socially and politically. For us to live together, we must all use our voices, and all our voices must have a chance of being heard. Given an equal chance to speak, we might just listen to one another.
There’s no question that the Koch brothers or Robert Mercer or, yes, George Soros can use money to ensure that their opinions have more weight than the opinions of the rest of us. Pop musicians too. Maybe, like the old adage goes, we should be the change we hope to see in the world.
Movies can and do effect change. But what if I make a movie that portrays black folks as inferior, or Arabs as devious and conniving, or women as subservient and passive? Well, those movies have in fact been made; there are lots of them. Agendas and social and political beliefs are embedded in everything we do and make, but we often don’t notice that we are proselytizing those beliefs by embedding them as tacit assumptions. Nothing seems unusual until a work aims to change those embedded norms—that’s when we notice.
I propose that works that attempt to effect some sort of wider change this way, by revising current norms, are actually more truly reflecting current social norms, as they embody norms that are on the cusp of change. Dickens and Tubman had an effect because some significant part of the world was ready to go that way. They were elucidating a change that was ready and willing to happen.
DB: Is love a real thing?
DB: Love, it seems to me, is a joyous self-deception, practiced by two people at the same time. No one is as wonderful as the object of one’s love appears to be, and yet who among us would trade that illusion for the truth? Being an illusion, it is not real, but despite not being something we can see or touch, feelings are as real as any physical object. So in that sense, love is absolutely real. Real and not real at the same time. Like some kind of quantum physics puzzle, it binds the universe.
DB: When should one keep pushing and when is it better to find another way?