To Roseanne’s defenders, she made a bad joke about a woman she genuinely believed to be white instead of African-American; to James Gunn’s, he used to be a shock-jock figure on the internet with a weird predilection for pedophilia jokes. What’s the big deal? Well…
When Roseanne was fired from her own show after disparaging Valerie Jarrett on Twitter, the precedent was set at ABC and, by extension, corporate parent Disney as to what constitutes a fireable offense these days. No crime needs to have been committed. All you need to do is to say something stupid/offensive enough to stir up trouble for your employer on social media. Thus, Disney stepping in to sever all ties with Guardians of the Galaxy writer-director James Gunn due to something he said on social media feels of a piece with what happened before.
It’s not, though. Roseanne mouthed off and spewed hate on Twitter, as is her way. It was noticed immediately, and within 12 hours ABC and Disney decided she’d finally gone too far, although why exactly they chose that specific moment and line-crossing is a mystery considering Roseanne’s long, well-document line of offensive speech and conspiracy theory-peddling. James Gunn, on the other hand, had all the evidence – all of it old tweets going back a decade – against him rounded up by conservative pundits who then called on their followers to contact Disney and demand his termination.
Source: Cernovitch.com. A typically misleading headline, of course. The story actually claims Gunn deleted 10,000 tweets but does not and cannot verify that all 10,000 of the tweets contained pedophilia jokes.
It worked with alarming ease, and the motivations, in this case, are equally alarming. James Gunn has said enough mean things about Donald Trump in recent years to piss off the MAGA crowd. That lends all of this the feel of a political hitjob, whataboutism run amuck and Disney responding in good faith to charges brought about by people acting in bad faith.
The tipping point came in the past week when mumblecore and microbudget pioneer Mark Duplass ignorantly waded into especially murky waters by Tweeting a call for any of his left-leaning followers to consider following right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro:
“Fellow liberals: If you are interested at all in ‘crossing the aisle’ you should consider following @benshapiro,” Duplass tweeted. “I don’t agree with him on much but he’s a genuine person who once helped me for no other reason than to be nice. He doesn’t bend the truth. His intentions are good.”
What Duplass didn’t realize, however, is Shapiro repeatedly bends the truth and says reprehensible things, such as gleefully suggesting Trayvon Martin deserved to die or that the world needs a Palestinian ethnic cleansing. As such, there was a backlash and Duplass was forced to walk back his statement, which then resulted in a backlash against the backlash.
As Vox argued, the whole thing wasn’t “just a controversy about an actor and a conservative provocateur. It’s about the Way We Talk today — and just where we draw the lines of acceptable political opinion and partisan disagreement.” One side dropped the moral hammer down on someone, and then the other side led with cries of intolerance. Same script, different day/controversy. Tribalism continues. We still don’t know how to talk to each other in 2018.
James Gunn, as he often, too often it turns out, did in such scenarios, weighed in. In his view, Mark Duplass’ intentions were pure and should be judged against the larger sins of the day:
Duplass concluded, as Vox put it, “a complete look at Shapiro’s record reveals he isn’t exactly the person he presents himself to be when speaking to mainstream audiences — a thoughtful #NeverTrump conservative — but in fact is someone far cruder and crueler.” Gunn thought Duplass didn’t deserve the backlash he received, but that Shapiro deserves to be unfollowed by his own mother on Twitter. Sort of a “Hey, he backed the wrong team, but his heart was in the right place.”
So, The Daily Caller, One America News Network correspondent Jack Posobiec and right wing commentator Mike Cernovich set out to bring Gunn down, and boy did he turn out to make for an easy target. Because, in all fairness, if I describe some of Shapiro’s old tweets as “reprehensible” I can’t then sugarcoat Gunn’s as well. Here’s the most oft-quoted one of the bunch so far:
In 2010, he joked about masturbating to Justin Bieber. A year later, he joked about doing an adaptation of The Giving Tree in which “the tree grows back and gives the kid a blowjob.” The year after that, he boasted “‘Eagle snatches kid’ is what I call it when I get lucky.”
Most of the comments are quite clearly made in jest, but as the Roseanne case showed the “I was just joking” defense doesn’t always fly (nor does “I was on Ambien”). Gunn, unlike Roseanne, isn’t yet claiming victimhood nor political persecution, instead accepting Disney’s decision while trying to explain that he was once in the habit of making scandalous jokes to get attention or “provocate”:
1. 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.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 20, 2018
2. 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.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 20, 2018
4. 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.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 20, 2018
5. 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.
This is not the first time Gunn has issued such a statement in response to a controversy. In 2012, shortly after he was hired on to Guardians of the Galaxy an old blog post he’d written containing homophobic jokes was uncovered (despite his efforts to delete it) and rightfully criticized. He eventually responded:
“A couple of years ago I wrote a blog that was meant to be satirical and funny. In rereading it over the past day I don’t think it’s funny. The attempted humor in the blog does not represent my actual feelings. However, I can see where statements were poorly worded and offensive to many. I’m sorry and regret making them at all […] We’re all in the same camp, and I want to do my best to make this world a better place for all of us. I’m learning all the time. I promise to be more careful with my words in the future. And I will do my best to be funnier as well. Much love to all.”
A more cynical reading of this would see an alarming pattern of speech on Gunn’s part which might suggest he’s not quite the man he presents himself to be. A more optimistic reading is he’s simply guilty of making bad jokes and is quite clearly not that guy anymore. Somewhere in the middle is the new #MeToo reality of not knowing what to think anymore.
What seems to have happened here is James Gunn went after a conservative writer who often claims his most outrageous views are actually just own-the-libs fodder thrown out there to get attention, as evidenced in Eric Weinstein’s defensive description of Shapiro’s “‘red-meat’ left-baiting act.” That led to a Trumpian whataboutism turn back on Gunn, who has also made incendiary comments in the admitted interest of getting noticed.
Late last year, John Oliver broke down “whataboutism” thusly: “This technique of saying ‘What about…’ is actually an old Soviet propaganda tool. The reason it is dangerous is because it implies all actions, regardless of context, share a moral equivalency and since nobody is perfect all criticism is hypocritical.”
Those who just wielded this technique against Gunn weren’t as transparent or blunt about it as Trump usually is. Cernovich’s reporting, for example, made no reference to Gunn’s political views or part in the Duplass-Shapiro debate. However, the motivations are quite the same, and as far as Disney is concerned a moral equivalency has just been drawn between what Roseanne did and what James Gunn did. Said in the past, said it just last night on Ambien, verbally attacked someone completely unprovoked, made crude sex jokes that didn’t necessarily impugn anyone’s reputation other than your own – it’s all the same.
That’s now Disney’s precedent on speech among its employees, and should it fail to uphold that precedent in the future the charges of hypocrisy will be inevitable and weaponized against them by individuals on either side of the political divide. When a company converts itself into the morality police as an effort to control every news cycle and guard against any disruption to stock value the punishments doled out have to be consistent.
But where’s the line? How far back into someone’s social media or even pre-social media history do we go? Do we even entertain the notion that people who once held abhorrent beliefs or advanced objectionable humor can evolve and change over time? Because Roseanne sure hasn’t. What’s the difference between crude, offensive speech and actual criminal conduct? Literally in the same day Disney fired Gunn Blackish star Anthony Anderson was revealed to be under investigation by the LAPD for assault, a charge he denies. As of this writing, he still has his job on his ABC show. Disney has yet to comment. By comparison, at this same point in their news cycles, James Gunn and Roseanne had been fired.
Ben Shapiro, of course, still has his radio show and job at The Daily Wire, the site he founded; Gunn is done at Marvel and probably in the rest of Hollywood for a while, though not if Dave Bautista has anything to say about it.
It sucks all around, but it couldn’t have happened if Gunn hadn’t made those jokes. Without an actual “there” there no shame campaign could have been mounted. A truly scary playbook has just been laid out for how to leverage corporate anxiety over social media pushback to essentially assassinate someone’s career. But Gunn did the crime. His old jokes made this surprisingly easy on his enemies.