James Gunn’s Firing Exposes Double Standards and Danger In Punishing The Past

The Situation: A Messy One

The situation with James Gunn is a messy one. Not just for Gunn, Disney, and the MCU but for all of us. Let me briefly explain, for those who aren’t Marvel Fans, don’t bother with social media, or just have no clue what has happened with James Gunn.

Director James Gunn, the man behind the blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy movies, has been fired by Disney and therefore will not be working on the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 due to the fact that several of his old tweets, which contained some severely offensive and shocking jokes about material that really isn’t funny (pedophilia and rape), were unearthed and passed around social media by far-right activists; some point specifically to pundits Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec as having unearthed the tweets.

These two men are known for pushing conspiracy theories such as Antifa’s involvement with a train derailment near Dupont, Washington and the infamous “Pizzagate.” The well-known fact that these two were conspiracy theorists might not be a reason to entirely discount what they had to say but it certainly should have given Disney pause when it came to making decisions. The fact that one of them has stated his strategy for defeating people he sees as the enemy is “To beat a person, you lower his or her social status,” should have been a red flag. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

The Cost Of Being Kind

It bears mentioning that this all seemed to coincide with a Twitter event which involved Gunn, Ben Shapiro, and Gunn’s defense of fellow filmmaker Mark Duplass. Gunn had the audacity to attempt to get people to look at the Mark Duplass situation from a different perspective and immediately the hounds of Twitter turned on him. There is a terrifying irony in that fact.

Looking at what both Duplass and Gunn were put through is it any wonder that people have become quick to attack their perceived enemies but slow to defend their friends and allies? When we talk about the lack of civility, maybe one of the things we need to look at is the price people are paying for anything that resembles kindness, compassion, or loyalty. It’s a sad statement on our society that we have reached a point you have to be as brave as Drax to stand up for someone you care about. Incidentally, while others have since come to stand beside Gunn, it was Dave Bautista who was the first reported to his side.

Where We Are Now

In spite of Disney’s failure to “consider the source” or to even look at the context of the entire situation because few companies have the time to do that, the fact remains that Gunn did tweet those things. Not only did he say them, but in the years since he has addressed them, acknowledge his responsibility, and demonstrated a desire and ability to evolve beyond them. A desire that his brother Sean goes in to detail about in a recent interview.

It goes without saying that I love and support my brother James and I’m quite proud of how kind, generous, and compassionate he is with all the people in his life. Since he was a kid, it was clear he had a desire (maybe destiny) to be an artist, tell stories, find his voice through comics, films, his band. The struggle to find that voice was sometimes clunky, misguided, or downright stupid, and sometimes wonderful, moving, and hilarious. Since devoting his entire life to the Guardians movies and MCU six years ago, I’ve seen him channel that voice into his work and seen him transform from the guy who made up things to shock people. I saw firsthand as he went from worrying about “softening his edge” for a larger audience to realizing that this “edge” wasn’t as useful of a tool as he thought it was. That his gift for storytelling was something better. I saw that he was more open-hearted than the guy who thought he needed to get a rise out of people by making nasty or offensive jokes (or whatever you choose to call them—I don’t think his bluer material was ever his funniest and neither does Mom). And the best part is, this change in my brother was reflected in the change that the Guardians go through. I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with “this is our chance to give a shit”—to care—that it’s the pep talk he himself needed to hear. It’s part of what made working on the Guardians movies such a rewarding experience for the cast. We managed to find ourselves involved in a big-budget superhero movie that was, at its core, deeply personal. That’s a gift. And that’s why it’s good. This isn’t new information, by the way. It’s all stuff that James has explained many times in interviews, in more detail and more eloquently. It’s not some new spin. It’s always been part of this story. So I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self. Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too. I’ll always be proud of that. Peace.

A post shared by Sean Gunn (@thejudgegunn) on

The fact is that what happened to Gunn isn’t about him as much as it is about us as a society. Recently, we’ve seen more careers destroyed over words than over actual behaviors. Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit have been around more than a decade. In spite of the good that comes from the added connection, we are seeing more and more often that social media can be weaponized as ways to hurt, humiliate, threaten, and even destroy those with whom we disagree. One only has to do a simple Google search using “fired over social media” to find a plethora of examples from both the world of celebrity and the day-to-day lives of average people.

Is This How Freedom Of Speech Dies?

I mulled over the potential death of freedom of speech given the state of our society and rapidity with which words can get a person fired. Dave Banks, my GeekDad colleague, reminded me “The fact that people are still speaking means that freedom of speech is still alive and well. It’s civilized discussion that’s on life support. There’s too much yelling and very little listening.”

One only needs to spend 5 minutes on any social media ‘discussion’ about any hot button topic to see he is right. While, the loss of civil discourse is part and parcel to the weaponization of social media and worthy movements like #metoo, that is a rabbit hole I will save for a later date. His point reminded me that all too often we confused “freedom of speech” with “freedom from consequence.”

Keeping in mind, the difference between “freedom of speech” and “freedom from consequence” when dealing with the issues of civil discourse prevents us devolving to the point where our political ideologies become our defining characteristics. As a society, we never want to get to the point where you are expected to only do business, speak to, or associate with those of a like mind. That creates the mentality of “sticking to our own kind” and I think our history shows us clearly how dangerous that mentality is to our humanity.

We also need to avoid that sort of an echo chamber because it not only further divides us it makes us more stupid. We learn more when we are willing to have our thoughts and beliefs challenged. That is how we learn. That is how we grow. When we open our minds to a broader range of perspective even if, in the end, we still adhere to our original thoughts / beliefs on an issue we are now more informed.

Freedom of Speech vs Freedom from Consequence

The most common argument I see on both sides in these types of situations is the “Freedom of Speech” argument. The claim that anyone, anywhere, should be able to say what they want at any time. That’s a horrendously broad definition of the first amendment. Too often, people talking about “free speech” are advocating “freedom from consequence.”

Even Gunn recognized this as you can see in his referenced tweet above. I would bet money that this understanding was why he is quoted by BuzzFeed as saying:

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.

The first amendment is specific in stating that Congress is not to make a law prohibiting or reducing free speech. It doesn’t say that you can say anything anywhere anytime without consequences. It says you will not go to jail or be persecuted by your government for what you said. Free speech is the reason you can say “President [insert any president’s name] is a big jerk face who stinks” without being arrested.

  • If you are caught shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, or joking about blowing up a plane while on an airline and you will suffer legal repercussions, likely jail.
  • Call your boss a foul name to his face, or post that you hate the company that employs you on twitter and you will not face jail or legal issues. You will, however, be without a job (unless your boss or company are very easy going).

This is the difference between “freedom of speech” and “freedom from consequence.” Too often, when the person in the hot seat is someone we like or agree with we start yelling “freedom of speech” when what we are really saying is we want them to be free from consequence. Yet, when the person in that same hot seat is not “one of our own” we dismiss the very same arguments and demand to see the full weight of consequence brought to bear.

False Equivalency & Double Standards

This brings me to my next point and one that I wish more people online understood. The danger of double standards and false equivalency. I cannot count the number of Tweets I saw that evoked the Roseanne Barr situation as a reason Gunn should be fired. There’s a false equivalency there.

Roseanne made those tweets and received immediate consequence for her actions. They were not something from nine years earlier that someone with way too much free time dug up. There was an immediate shock and outcry. Also, she didn’t exactly give a heartfelt and sincere apology. She didn’t have years of personal change and growth prior to her being fired.

Gunn had already apologized and addressed his abhorrent tweets in 2012. There is no way that Disney didn’t know about them. Disney knows where I am every minute I am on their property and exactly what my kids want for their birthday. They had to know. Okay, maybe that was an exaggeration (about the birthday thing) but given the extremely public apology Gunn gave in 2012, it’s safe to say Disney knew. This was very much like having your kid own up to breaking a vase, you forgive him and then two months later in spite of no further infractions you ground him for that same vase.

At the same time, we can see that a number of people defending Gunn are the same ones that want people they consider “on the opposite side” held accountable for old comments. I was quite proud to see one of my online associates give a very salient example that most of the internet could identify with of why we can’t just excuse a person that we like from something for which we’d hold a person we dislike accountable. I’m paraphrasing his comment:

If we hold Trump accountable for his infamous ‘grab them’ quote then we should expect the same level of accountability when the accused is someone we don’t find reprehensible.

His point is that we all too often see double standards on both sides of the aisle. We reserve our outrage only for those we see as the opposition. This is perhaps the most difficult bias to combat and yet the most dangerous thing to allow. It promotes the ‘Othering‘ of someone based on ideology. We lose our compassion when we see those we disagree with as nothing more than the dissenter, the opposition, an enemy to be destroyed rather than as a human.

We also run a dangerous risk of excusing those we agree with of horrific acts, insidious cruelty based solely on the fact that they are “one of us.” It evokes an almost Stepford-like mentality that brings me back to my argument about the echo chamber. Progress comes from diversity and growth from accountability. We, as a society, need both.

A Dangerous Lesson

As it stands now the biggest takeaway from what has happened to Gunn is a dangerous lesson that is being taught to every one of us. Never make a mistake. However, mistakes are how we learn, how we grow. Without failing a time or two (or two dozen) we can never succeed. Yet here we sit, in judgment on a man over jokes made in his past without considering any of the following very salient facts:

  • The world was very different a decade ago
  • The individual in question has demonstrated personal growth
  • The individual in question accepted accountability and addressed about six years ago
  • The intention behind these tweets was pure malice not the greater good

One of my colleagues, Stephen Clark, made a solid point that I have seen echoed in a few tweets about the real damage that this does to us as a whole.

“This is telling people who try to make themselves better that it will never matter.”

This is a very legitimate concern. Have we really, as a society, hit the point where if you have ever done anything wrong, stupid, offensive, or immature that you shouldn’t bother doing the work to move pat that stage because it will be dug up when you least expect it? Are we going to spend our lives chasing down the social sins of others just so we can see their nose rubbed in it. Have we reached the point where we judge others not on the content of their character but on the content of their Twitter Feed?

Never bother to apologize. Never try to change because in the end you will still be forced to pay for it, no matter how long or (more importantly) how much change you have experienced. We no longer believe that humans are capable of character development.

It’s sad to see that in a society where we as fans demand well-developed comic book and movie characters, we treat real humans as if they are two-dimensional, flat characters incapable of personal growth. We want to see our fictional heroes overcome hideous personality flaws and experience tremendous moments of personal reflection and redemption. Yet, we cannot imagine that a human being might be prone to precisely these things.

So tell me again why you need sympathetic villains, anti-heroes, great moments of redemption, and characters with depth of personality when you cannot look at your fellow humans with those eyes and believe the same is possible for them? I will leave you with a gentle suggestion to read this thread by Ashley Lynch and a tweet from Selma Blair.