James Gunn and the culture of Trial by Twitter

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James Gunn and the culture of Trial by Twitter


Here we are again and it seems like we keep coming back to this sad, dark well with no sign of slowing down. Last week, after a series of offensive tweets by director James Gunn were uncovered, the ol’ knee-jerk firing squad of Disney took aim and erased him from their ranks, with Disney Chairman Alan Horn citing, “The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values, and we have severed our business relationship with him.” Gunn quickly apologized and acknowledged his behavior (you can read it below) and, in a normal world, I think we could listen, address and accept the genuine apology. But, more and more, what’s normal has become a blurred line. This situation (and many more like it in the non-celebrity world, including professional sports) obviously caused a major rift among fandom and Hollywood at large, which begs the question; when is it RIGHT to fire someone and when is it NOT and, ultimately, does the punishment fit the “crime”?

“My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.

Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today. Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then. All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse. To everyone inside my industry and beyond, I again offer my deepest apologies. Love to all.”

Controversy isn’t a stranger in Hollywood. It’s been around since the beginning. But, with the advent of social media and celebrities finding a new way to communicate to the masses, it has created a new kind of controversy, one which is dealt with swiftly and often with digital pitchforks, rather than any kind of due process, rule of law or even careful consideration and weighing of evidence. Witness Roseanne Barr’s offensive tweet that caused the cancellation of her #1 rated show within 24 hours. Thunderous applause was met with this action, but in doing so, ABC (owned by Disney) set a dangerous precedent, one that has come full circle again.

While Barr’s comments were of the moment, she herself was no stranger to making the same kind of noise for decades. Surely, ABC knew who they hired, right? That’s not an excuse for her behavior, but the question must still be asked. As with Barr, Disney surely knew that they hired someone to spearhead their GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY franchise who was born of the Troma-era and had an active Twitter feed and personal blog that was rife with his attempts at shock humor long before they handed him the keys to a galactic franchise. Wasn’t it his outside-the-box sensibilities and humor what they saw in him in the first place? James Gunn didn’t just appear out of nowhere and his contributions to GUARDIANS are exactly what made it the success it became (which grossed Disney a whopping $1.6 billion).

Social media, for all the good it may do, can also bring about the downfall of anyone, be it celebrity or no (and some, like Rian Johnson, are already taking measures to protect themselves). It may feel like it’s been around forever, but it’s a very new technology and the rules, etiquette and general usage tend to ebb and flow with the tide of social change. Times have always changed, from laws to social norms and beyond. They always will. However, we’ve never had a platform that tracked it, second-by-second, in the history of the world. We’re at a time where someone born today can track their lives from birth to death in a way that’s never been seen before. This includes the good and the bad and none of us have lived a life free of error. The difference now is that your errors can live forever, serving as a constant reminder of who you were, even if you’ve changed for the better. Now, an apology won’t do. The only lesson learned is to have your proverbial tongue cut out and burned at the stake. And what does that teach anyone? Why do we teach kids to apologize to one another for wrongdoing and letting it be a lesson to learn and grow from? Are we going to switch to casting them out from society in place of that apology now? Is that the new standard for making amends? Are amends even allowed anymore?

What we tend to forget is that an apology, as long as it’s genuine, is supposed to mean something. Yes, sometimes a punishment is dished out even if an apology is issued, but it should fit the crime. Which brings up another aspect of social media that has become a truly disturbing trend; Trial by Twitter. This is where those digital pitchforks come in and anything goes in terms of how people will pounce on one another in an attempt to shun them, shame them and ultimately exile them in a jury made up of anonymous Twitter handles, often for the horrible crime of having an opinion. Accusations can be made and sentences carried out within 280 characters without the burden of proof, rule of law or trial by jury. It’s the world we live in and we perpetuate it every time we take part in such online smear campaigns.

I guess the argument would be that these are adults we’re talking about that should apparently know better, but this isn’t a case of criminal activity (and mistakes can be made at ANY age); these are jokes. Bad, filthy, offensive and unfunny jokes, yes, but jokes nonetheless (and the further you go back, particularly in stand-up comedy, you’ll find yourself cringing at certain jokes you KNOW wouldn’t fly today, but were fine at the time they were made). Ultimately, this deep dive into tweet history is being fueled by political unrest on both sides of the aisle, seeking to discredit or hold court over an outspoken celebrity in order to take them down. And on one hand, I get it. As Vincent Vega once said, “You play with fire you will get burned.” But, silencing someone or lobbying for them to be fired because you don’t like what they have to say has never been okay. You take away one voice and that puts you on the slippery slope of all voices being up for grabs. Is that the world we’re trying to live in? When it comes to free speech, consequences of it always exist, but attempting to silence someone simply for a difference of opinion is a nail in the coffin of that freedom, regardless of how offended you may be (also, you don’t have a right to NOT be offended, no matter what your college professor tells you).

It’s a dangerous game being played and the more we paint ourselves into this politically correct corner, the more we lose. And let’s not forget about the impact decisions like this will have on filmmakers (or anyone in a creative field). I see it every day on Twitter; users whining about there being no original content, no risky material, filmmakers playing it safe, etc., but where is the incentive to take risk, to experiment, to challenge yourself (and the audience) if you’ll only be ousted years later when what seemed risky at one point is now considered culturally and morally corrupt by the nameless “status quo” (Director James Mangold recently commented on this in dealing with online fan backlash via social media)? As times and society change, we have to take into account the way things were before we’re so quick to judge those that have grown and changed with the times, rather than those that remain stuck in their ways.

This knee-jerk reaction to every accusation, every claim, every Twitter corpse pulled from the grave, is nothing short of cowardly injustice, in this case from Disney. As a counter example, look at Rick & Morty co-creator Dan Harmon, who also came under fire for making a parody of Dexter that involved pedophilia years ago (which had long been deleted, but…nothing really dies on the Internet, as you know). However, instead of instantly firing and distancing themselves from Harmon, Adult Swim put out the very kind of statement that people like Gunn (and many others like him who have also suffered similar fates) should’ve been afforded as well, saying, “At Adult Swim, we seek out and encourage creative freedom and look to push the envelope in many ways, particularly around comedy. The offensive content of Dan’s 2009 video that recently surfaced demonstrates poor judgement and does not reflect the type of content we seek out. Dan recognized his mistake at the time and has apologized. He understands there is no place for this type of content here at Adult Swim.” The only feasible reason I can think of that Disney wouldn’t defend Gunn similarly is that they simply don’t encourage or support their filmmakers. They’re interchangeable, unimportant and non-essential to their brand, which is supposedly family friendly. Except when it comes to actual convicted pedophiles.

Harmon also deleted his Twitter account, which is probably the best thing for him to do at this time and place. While you could argue that he shouldn’t and that he has every right to keep it active, it’s not like he can’t return to the platform. Sometimes a little break is what’s needed and maybe Gunn should consider something similar. Just like kids being made to apologize, we sometimes make them take a time-out and it’s a lesson that lasts a lifetime. However, many have rallied to Gunn in the wake of this firing, including the GUARDIANS cast in an open letter and there’s currently a petition to get him rehired for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Vol. 3. It’s unlikely that will change much, though, as the damage has been done. Disney could walk it back and rehire Gunn, but there would surely be an uproar from one side or another. But, there is the old adage that you can’t please everyone all the time. Sometimes, you just have to make a choice and stick to your Gun(n)s.

Another group that’s seeing an uptick in Twitter feed excavation is professional athletes. Just last week Milwaukee Brewers’ Josh Hader was revisited with old racist tweets he made when he was 17 and publicly apologized multiple times, on camera and in interviews, while his teammates stood by him. It’s a stark contrast to the swift axe that lopped off Gunn’s proverbial head in the wake of his resurfaced regrettable tweets. You could argue that they’re two different industries, but are they not both entertainment? Do they not both operate under an umbrella of team members that support them in an effort to create said entertainment? And don’t even get me started on the double standards being applied to journalists, most recently with the hiring of Sarah Jeong by The New York Times, who have decided to stand by their new hire in the wake of a string of unearthed racist tweets. I mean, what IS the standard here?

In the end, Disney is a corporation. They have shareholders to answer to (think about this while you cheer on that Fox merger and what that means for future content) and a massive crop of customers that don’t all necessarily dissect the issues beyond the surface, which to them is James Gunn = Pedophilia. It’s a stigma, however false, perpetuated by the telephone effect of information that traverses the globe where misinformation becomes fact. But, imagine for a minute if Disney had stood by their man, acknowledged his apology and doubled-down on their commitment to customers, rather than attempting to erase Gunn’s accomplishments and pretend that they’re beyond reproach. Besides, if they really want to distance themselves from things in the past that are offensive today, they might want to consider erasing the bevy of racial stereotypes and “offensive” language in all of their films, including everything they ever did with Harvey Weinstein. Or, we can all be grown ups and realize that things change, mistakes can be made (THE LONE RANGER, anyone?) and we can move on from them. We can accept genuine apologies and move forward, ever the wiser, lessons learned and make the world a better place. Or, we can be cowardly knee-jerk reaction morons and enforce draconian punishments for stupid jokes.

What do YOU think? Should Gunn have been fired? Should he be rehired? Is it too late? Is Twitter the devil? Hit us back with your thoughts below and please, for the love of all that’s holy, LET’S KEEP IT CIVIL. Let’s pretend for a moment that we can still discuss things in a mature, calm and thoughtful way, even if you disagree.





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