Special Features

Whataboutism & James Gunn

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.

(ABC/Kelsey McNeal)

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.

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21 comments

  1. Yep…the motivations behind those who dug up the tweets aren’t pure. They went for a scenario in which they felt they could only win…either they got James Gunn out of a job, or they could claim that Disney has double standards. It sucks, but at the end of the day, this isn’t as simply as “well, he joked in the past but learned.”

    For one, none of those jokes are in any way funny or tasteful. They are terrible and one would have to give me some really good explanation how someone could get the idea that they aren’t tasteless in any contest.

    Two, James Gunn didn’t suddenly have some sort of epiphany and changed. If one looks at the timeline you notice that the questionable tweets stopped around the time he got hired by Disney. Which creates the question: Did he truly realize that those “jokes” were terrible, or did he realize that Disney might have an issue with them and so (unlike Roseanne) laid low?

    Three, when he was called out on those other tweets and apologized for them – why the hell didn’t he sit down, go back and delete those questionable tweets? So he apologized for them, but he didn’t think that he should remove them from the internet? It might just be me, but if I had, for example, wrote a questionable blog post and changed my mind on what I wrote later, I would either take it down or, if I wanted my mistake to stay public, I would rewrite the blog post in order to distance myself from it. I wouldn’t keep my questionable ideas or jokes in the net so that they might keep influencing or offending other people. It is not words which make an apologize sound true, it’s actions.

    And this sucks. Everything about it. It sucks that the right was able to score a cheap point. It sucks because I was looking forward to see his take on the cosmic side of the MCU. But I can’t be angry with Disney about it, because this is not an artist clashing with an overly conservative company, this is a company drawing a line and not allowing questionable behaviour. And I really can’t fault them for this. Not when we are talking about someone who joked about sexual assaults on children, even if it was eight years ago (which, frankly, isn’t not that long of a time period…that is less time than the MCU has been around).

    1. I agree. Disney is utterly ruthless when it comes to protecting their brand, or people associated with their brand, so after looking at some of those tweets , i knew there’d be fallout for it.

      I hate this whole thing. The Right did this out of spite because they were pissed off about the Roseanne Debacle. But there should never have been the fuel for them to do so. For the record, I don’t approve of combing through someone’s social media backlog to discredit them today. As for Roseanne, she should never have been given a show in the first place. What she did wasn’t five or ten years ago, but much more immediate, and part of this general climate.

      I’ve been following Gunn’s career for a bit, but I’m not on social media at all, so didn’t know about what he did. Is one way to solve this issue is for Disney to vet its employees much better than they’ve been doing? I don’t know. Should employers have to comb through decades of your social media history to see if that will affect their brand at some later date? I don’t know.

      1. The thing is if you look at the timeline, Gunn made this kind of jokes right up until he got hired by Disney. So it is not like Disney would have had to dig all that far, and they were aware of him having made questionable jokes in the future…I guess they were just not aware of the ones involving sex with children.

  2. People act like this is trivial and petty of Disney too, because “this guy made them 1.5 billion dollars!” and etc. That’s really not that much money in the context of the whole of the Disney empire, and they stand to lose a LOT more than that if their name becomes associated with condoning pedophilia and rape (yes, I know that Gunn is not actually a literal pedophile or rapist, but tell that to the people currently swarming his Twitter calling for his head because they take every word they read online absolutely literally). From their perspective the risk of keeping him on is simply much, much greater than the reward.

    Maybe it’s not nice or fair, but in the end it’s one guy’s job vs. the reputation of a hundred billion dollar empire with millions of employees, all over some stupid things the guy should have known better than to say publicly under his own name.

  3. We are entering a very dangerous time where it’s not the government but businesses that will destroy our right to free speech. I’m conservative but I’m just as alarmed at James’ firing as I was about Roseanne’s.

    I don’t know of a solution, though. Both the Left and the Right have immense market influence and they both seem more and more motivated to wield that influence as a weapon against speech, ideas, or even people they don’t like.

    How far do we let this go? What lines should never be crossed? And have we already crossed them.

    I find myself thinking about the culture on “The Giver”, where no one is allowed to say anything offensive and everything is peaceful but lifeless.

    1. You really don’t understand what free speech is. Free speech means that you can say whatever you want without the government hindering you to do so. For example if a president threatens the NFL to look into their tax cuts if they don’t force their players to not kneel in protest during the anthem and they obey, free speech is dead. But free speech doesn’t mean that you can say whatever you want without facing consequences…scream fire and create a mass panic and you’ll be punished for it. Insult your boss and you can’t expect to have a job the next day. And if the NFL itself had been bothered about their players kneeling, it would be okay too…as would have been people protesting the NFL for not allowing it.

      1. I think there is a fair question, though, about “How far do we let this go? What lines should never be crossed? And have we already crossed them.”

        Free speech doesn’t mean speech without consequence, but we are still in the process of learning what exactly those consequences are and what kind of statue of limitations are at play. At the moment, it does seem like anything you’ve ever said in your entire life that was made available for public viewing is liable to hurt you later, regardless of any efforts you might make toward contrition. Just don’t say anything stupid ever. It’s a corporations prerogative to decide what to do with all of that; it’s up to you as to whether they’ll ever have any reason to look at you. Doesn’t that, in its own way, suppress free speech, though? Or does it just simply heighten awareness of the “free speech doesn’t mean speech without consequences” of it all?

      2. James Gun has since deleted this tweet (Gee, I wonder why?), but on May 29, Gunn wrote, “I wish some of these so-called defenders of liberty would start to understand what freedom of speech is AND isn’t. Roseanne is allowed to say whatever she wants. It doesn’t mean @ABCNetwork needs to continue funding her TV show if her words are considered abhorrent.”

        He’s basically made the case for his own firing.

      3. Well…no. This isn’t a freedom of speech issue at all. Freedom of speech only extends to government censorship. No one else has any obligation whatsoever to follow the principle, legally speaking.

        None of this is anything that new either. It’s no different than a fast food employee getting fired for being openly racist on Facebook or any other similar story we hear about all the time and normally have a good laugh at, except in terms of scale.

      4. It won’t matter that the government doesn’t restrict speech if the government allows businesses to do it instead.

        We could find ourselves in a terrible situation where we can’t get a bank account or auto insurance. Some doctors won’t treat us. We have to drive 30 miles to find a restaurant that will service us — all based on some mob-rule of what’s considered acceptable speech.

      5. In any era, every single country that ended up in ruins said at one point something along the lines of, “That’s just paranoid fantasy. If it hasn’t happened yet it’s not going to.”

      6. True…but I think if he just had something “stupid”, it wouldn’t have been a problem. I mean, everyone goes on and on about the “I like it when little boys touch me in my silly place, shhh” tweet, but I am more disturbed by the one in which he says that the Expendables were so manly that he “Fucked the shit out of the little pussy box next to me” or the one in which he said that giving tree should end with giving the kid a blow job…and this last one is from September 2011. So he basically shots off his mouth in the most vile way up to the point at which he is hired by Disney. Frankly, that so many portray this as if we are talking about some careless tweets it did as a teen puzzles me. He is a grown man now, he was a grown man seven years ago, and from my perspective, seven years are not that long of a time ago…in fact it is pretty much the time he worked for Disney and a shorter time than the MCU has been around.

        And regarding free speech: Countrapoints did an excellent video about free speech and how it can never be completely free, because other people might always try to shut free speech down…not just companies, right-wingers are especially good at targeting people. This is the one thing which gives me a twinge, that we are talking here about some right-winger basically shutting down someone who was vocal against them. At the same time though, if we try to create and environment in which things can be discussed openly, we can’t just always go “it was just a joke” as first reaction. If we do that, EVERYTHING is just a joke. Somewhere they has to be a line and while I am not sure where the line exactly is, she is sure as hell not past making jokes about children having sex.

        It’s not like I am vindictive about the matter. I am sure Gunn will be hired for a different project soon. Just not with Disney. Because Disney is not just a studio, it is first and foremost a brand, and as far as I know, Disney is pretty clear about what is expected of their employees when they represent the company. I don’t think that the expectations are in any way unreasonable…but if enough people would feel that way, they also have the right to speak up and push i for change.

      7. My post makes it clear I understand the distinction about free speech. But what happens if banks stop giving checking accounts to people they don’t agree with? Movie theater, restaurant, gym. If you say something they don’t like or support a candidate they don’t like — sure they have a legal right to refuse service, but if this becomes common practice, what does our society look like?

      8. Then…the media would pick up on it almost instantly, they would lose most of their customers, their stock would become near-worthless, and they wouldn’t be in business much longer. That’s kind of why you don’t see any big businesses having such policies today even though legally they can if they want to. It would be financial suicide and if they were that utterly incompetent in financial terms they’d never make it far enough to become a big business in the first place.

      9. Sure, the media — today — would make a fuss. But, the media is also becoming more and more biased. What if the media starts being even more overt in taking sides? Then we lose even that protection.

    2. Also, in “The Giver” there isn’t as rule against offensive speech, there is a rule for precise language…and everything is “peaceful but lifeless” not because the language is policed, but because the people don’t have any real feelings, since the Giver is forced to hold their memories and their pain. The very point in the Giver is that it is important to feel pain and suffer consequences, because only if you do so, you can truly feel.

      1. Yes, but the point there isn’t the lack of free speech in the sense that nobody is allowed to say anything, the point is that there is a lack of engagement in what is said. That could also work differently, ie someone says something offensive and then adds “it was just a joke” and you are forced to accept this as an apology to keep the peace in society. The lack of engagement is the point. (Hell, the book even has evenings in which people are forced to talk about their day and their “feelings”, just so that they can get a feedback loop which prevents them from actually questioning things, because everything is ritualized).

        It is just different from the notion that your actions have consequences because other people might push back on your opinion.

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