I don’t care to live in a culture where law-abiding citizens can have their reputations and careers destroyed by people maliciously publicizing old or private communications to make them hated or distrusted, or worse, a culture where doing this to people is deemed virtuous. Such a culture is one based on perpetual fear, where individuals cannot express an opinion that they may change later, or make a joke to a select audience, or have a conversation expressing strong but spontaneous and transient feelings without risking personal destruction at the hands of someone who wishes them ill.
That is the U.S. culture, however, that extremists on both ends of the political spectrum are successfully constructing, unles we stop them. Their tools are political correctness, invasions of privacy, abuse of technology, social media and its attendant mobs, and an utter disregard of fairness, decency and ethics.
Two recent example illustrate how serious the problem is. This post is about one of them.
Talented writer-director James Gunn, the creative force behind the delightful Guardians of the Galaxy movies was fired by Disney after his old tweets containing offensive jokes were uncovered and circulated on social media and the web. The tweets were deliberately sought by conservative blogger and activist Mike Cernovich, to intentionally wreck Gunn’s career. Gunn’s real offense was that he has been a vocal “resistance” recruit and a prominent conservative-hater, so once Cernovich had the goods on him, the Right was happy to use them.
No doubt, Gunn’s old tweets included jokes that many would consider worthy of Roseanne Barr on a careless day, like
- “Laughter is the best medicine. That’s why I laugh at people with AIDS.”
- “I like when little boys touch me in my silly place.”
- “The best thing about being raped is when you’re done being raped and it’s like ‘whew this feels great, not being raped!’”
Gunn, realizing that joking about pederasty, rape and AIDS was sufficient to get him Kevin Spaceyed for life, tried to explain:
Many people who have followed my career know when I started, I viewed myself as a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo. As I have discussed publicly many times, as I’ve developed as a person, so has my work and my humor. It’s not to say I’m better, but I am very, very different than I was a few years ago; today I try to root my work in love and connection and less in anger. My days saying something just because it’s shocking and trying to get a reaction are over. In the past, I have apologized for humor of mine that hurt people. I truly felt sorry and meant every word of my apologies. For the record, when I made these shocking jokes, I wasn’t living them out. I know this is a weird statement to make, and seems obvious, but, still, here I am, saying it. Anyway, that’s the completely honest truth: I used to make a lot of offensive jokes. I don’t anymore. I don’t blame my past self for this, but I like myself more and feel like a more full human being and creator today. Love you to you all.
I believe him. I believe him, though something nasty in me would love to know if he was telling friends that the Milwaukee Brewers should punish Josh Hader for the racist tweets he made in high school, because this whole phenomenon is a Golden Rule matter. That has been the Ethics Alarms position forever, including during the 2014 Donald Sterling Ethics Train Wreck, in which an NBA owner lost his team, millions in fines, and his reputation after his mistress taped an ugly conversation they had in his bedroom and circulated it. I reiterated this position most recently in May of this year:
The position of Ethics Alarms on these incidents, which also includes spurned lovers sharing private emails to the world in order to humiliate a correspondent, the Democratic Senators who leaked the President’s coarse rhetoric about “shithole” countries that took place during a meeting that was supposed to be private and confidential, and Donald Trump’s infamous “pussy-grabbing” statements, is simple. Once the embarrassing words are unethically made public, they can’t be ignored, Once the embarrassing words have unethically made public, they can’t be ignored. Neither should the circumstances of their making, or the unethical nature of their subsequent use was weapons of personal destruction.
There is not a human being alive who has not made statements in private meetings or conversations, whether those statements be jokes, insults, rueful observations or deliberate hyperbole, that would be horribly inappropriate as public utterances. Thus the feigned horror at such statements by others is the rankest kind of Golden Rule hypocrisy. In addition, the opprobrium and public disgrace brought down on the heads of those whose mean/ugly/politically incorrect/vulgar/ nasty/insulting words are made public by a treacherous friend, associate or colleague erodes every American’s freedom of thought, association and expression, as well as their privacy.
And yes, to anticipate the objection, I do not regard social media posts by non-public persons who later become celebrities to be truly public communications. They are, in the minds of the foolish individuals who send them, personal messages aimed at friendly audiences, and not intended for public circulation. In reaching this position I am influenced by the legal ethics and judicial rule regarding what is public knowledge regarding a former client that can be used by a lawyer . Simply because information is included in a public document that anyone can access doesn’t mean it is considered public enough for a lawyer to reveal it if the information involves a client. Most people don’t know about those facts because they don’t know how to find them, where to look, or whether the information even exists. Information doesn’t become truly public until it is widely accessible and disseminated. Once Gunn (and Hader) became celebrities, their social media presence was public, but not before. True, both Gunn and Hader should have realized that what they posted when they were nobody special had suddenly become a matter of public interest, and true, people need to start thinking that way, but most of our newly famous just don’t.
Becoming famous doesn’t make you smart.
It was wrong for Cernovich and others to go looking for old tweets to destroy Gunn (Hint: it is unethical to go looking for ways to destroy anyone) and wrong for conservative publications like The Daily Caller to use them. The conservatives are using the rationalizations “Tit for tat” and Sicilian Ethics (“They had it coming”), to excuse their miserable conduct, as in this comment on Twitchy:
“Of course, the Left is going to defend fellow traveler Gunn. But among all the outrage, could we please remember the time Sens. Patrick Leahy and Al Franken grilled Justice Don Willett over his old, out-of-context tweets? They wanted to keep him off the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over these?”
Never let it be said that conservatives are any better at ethical analysis than liberals, for this is pathetic, even for a rationalization. Willett, a judge, posted such un-judicial tweeted comments as “I could support recognizing a constitutional right to marry bacon” in a discussion of the rights of gays to marry. ” It was absolutely relevant to his fitness as a judge that he would make such a tweet; I don’t think wise and prudent judges should use Twitter at all. That crack, for example, undermines the dignity and credibility of the judiciary. In contrast, what do bad jokes have to do with a film director’s skill or talent? Not a thing.
Unfortunately, we cannot condemn Disney for acting once Cernovich’s hit job on Gunn was complete. The Cognitive Dissonance Scale …
…had taken over. The Guardian of the Galaxy movies were a +10 on the scale, and thus Gunn, attached to that franchise, was a 10 as well. But now trivializing rape and Aids, plus endorsing pederasty, had been linked to Gunn, and all of those views are deep, deep in negative territory. Disney knew they would drag Gunn down the scale, and as long as he remained with the films, the franchise and Disney would be dragged down with him. Disney had to fire Gunn.
And that’s exactly what The Daily Caller, Cernovich and others taking part in this hit job wanted.
What happened to James Gunn is modern McCarthyism in action. In those bad old days of national panic over the rise of Communism, an anonymous letter to a company showing that an executive had once expressed an interest in Marxism was often sufficient to get him fired. The process was forever linked to to the term “witch hunt” after Arthur Miller’s metaphorical drama “The Crucible” compared 17th Century Salem, where someone could destroy neighbors by accusing them of being witches, to Red-fearing America. During the Obama era, progressives embraced the Salem and McCarthy technique, using “racist,” “sexist,” “xenophobe” and “homophobic” as the new “Commie!’ accusations, and added expansive definitions of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment to their weaponry as well. (It is well to remember that there have been some genuine racists, misogynists, rapists, harassers, and homophobes, etc. exposed too, just as there were–and are— real Communists.)
If anything, this destructive tactic is becoming more pervasive, as conservatives, late to the game, now have decided to “enforce the new rules” the Left has forged against prominent progressives. How do we stop it? Again quoting that May post:
This is punishing people for what they think, or rather what people choose to think they think. This is how freedom dies, as free expression of opinions is replaced by fear. How is this process, where a trusted associate runs to the news media to destroy you with your own words, different from Soviet children informing on their own parents for disloyal sentiments in the kitchen? It isn’t.
The only way I can see to end all of this is for the same public consensus to develop that ultimately ended Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, but to have it focused on the likes of Cernovich, the race-baiters, and the political correctness mobs on social media. They are they real villains. They are the ones creating fear and division. They are the ones defying the Golden Rule, and who have “no sense of decency” at all.