Trevor Noah, James Gunn, and the problem with outrage culture

The outrage cycle has struck again this week — this time targeting two big stars in Hollywood and the late night circuit. In Hollywood, the Director James Gunn was fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy series after a number of vulgar tweets he authored about ten years ago surfaced online. On the other side of the US, in the late night circuit, the host the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, came under fire after a video of a racist routine targeting Aboriginal women also appeared online. The video, which is four years old, has to some calling for Noah’s upcoming tour in Australia to be boycotted.

There are some big commonalities between these two events.

First, both were incidents that happened a number of years ago, but only surfaced in the last week. Both were instances of people trying to make jokes, even if vulgar, crude and racist. More important both have expressed remorse for their jokes, with Noah saying he dropped his joke after he realised it was offensive (but stopping short of apologising), and James Gunn showing immense regret for his comments. Both are also now facing serious consequenses for their words, with the action against Gunn (being immediately fired) in particular being quite severe.

Let me be clear, the jokes made both by Gunn and Noah were pretty disgusting, and so I can understand the outrage that has followed. We can easily say that both need to have some accountability for their words and actions. At the same time I think these instances represent an example of the issues behind our outrage culture — issues that should make us stop, take a deep breath, and have a real think about how we react to these sorts of events.

The response to these events is part of what we could describe to a culture of outrage. The outrage culture is prominent in online spaces, particularly in the social justice-minded left. When people do or say “bad” things (without definition), particularly online, many are quick to call that behaviour out, and increasingly to shun that person for their comments. There is a cycle of outrage, often lasting for weeks, if not months, and following the person wherever they go, and whatever they say.

We have seen many many examples of this in recent years — Professor and Nobel Prize laureat Tim Hunt losing his job after a sexist joke at a talk in South Korea, the scientist Dr Matt Taylor wearing an offensive t-shirt at a press conference, and the actor Chris Pratt being forced to apologise after making an insensitive joke about hearing impaired people.

This outrage culture in many ways makes sense. These are instances of groups who have long faced jokes, discrimination and intimidation standing up for themselves — people saying that they will no longer take this crap, nor the people that perpetuate it. In a way this is very much a good thing. It highlights the growing voice of minority groups and growing sensitivity to the discrimination that these groups continue to face.

However, there are also multiple problems with this outrage culture, ones that should make us take a bit of a step back. Let’s focus on two.

First, if you look at these examples, we can see an increasing lack of nuance regarding the actions of the so-called “wrong doer”. Look at the example of Tim Hunt. At an event in South Korea, Hunt made comments about the ‘problems’ of women being involved in science, saying that the trouble with “girls” in the lab is that “they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” The reaction against Hunt was swift, and he was soon sacked from his position and made into a pariah. The controversy literally lasted months.

Yet, if you look at the details it was more complex than this. Rather than making a sexist statement as it first appeared, in the wash up it seemed as though Hunt was actually making a self-depricating (if awkward) joke about the nature of his role as a high-profile man and of sexism within science. He wasn’t, as he’s made clear later on, stating that women shouldn’t be involved in science. He was seemingly commenting on the barriers that women face, even if in an awkward, stupid and completely clumsy manner. But that nuance was completely lost, with the outrage that followed dominating discourse so forcefully that we could not actually find out the truth of the story until the damage had been done.

Trevor Noah has tried to make similar claims about the nuance in his jokes, arguing that comedy lands differently in different nations, and that he was not going into those jokes with the intent to offend Aboriginal women (although I honestly struggle to see how you can’t see that that was racist). This nuance is even more central in the case of Gunn. Here was a man who was acting a bit stupid, trying to do something funny, and completely failing. Yes, it was gross and weird, but it is more nuanced than him being a ‘bigoted bad guy’. There is an important element of intent here, one that got completely lost in the moment of outrage.

Secondly, the outrage culture does not allow for any potential for someone to change. Once you get stuck in the outrage cycle you are labelled — you are bigoted, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, and you are that forever. One action can end up defining you and the perception people have on you for many years to come.

But what value does that bring? James Gunn for example, again showed serious remorse for him tweets, and an intense desire to change. He has, as far as I’m aware, shown that change in his life, with many people coming to his defence. Yet, due to dumb comments from ten years ago, he is immediately punished very severely, sacked from the job that has made his career. There is no opportunity to change, no opportunity to become better, and to then lead by that example.

Here is another example of this. On Twitter this week I saw the story of a woman who said that she regretted her vote for Trump after he daughter in law was deported by ICE.  The response in the tweets that I saw were largely along the lines of “too late!” and “isn’t it funny how conservatives only start to care about things when it affects them.” There was no celebration of this woman changing her position, nor any sympathy for the position she is now in. She voted for Trump, so she is an awful selfish conservative, and no matter what she cannot change that.

If the point of campaigns for social justice is to make a more accepting and open world, then shouldn’t people changing their minds and positions be something we want to celebrate and congratulate? Isn’t that the whole point of what we’re trying to achieve?

Instead of working to create change in people all we are doing is labeling them as bad forever. That is not only untrue (we all have good and bad moments and do good and bad things in our lives), but it is also completely unhelpful. These sorts of responses don’t help facilitate people changing their views or approaches, they in fact stop them from doing so. If we are label people as bad forever based on one act, if we just ‘cancel’ them , then what incentive is there for people to listen to us and to change? How can we bring more people into a movement when your previous existence outside that movement labels you as inherently bad.

Yes, the jokes from Noah and Gunn were gross. And in Noah’s case, his response has not necessarily been ideal. Yet, these instances should give us a moment to take a breath and think about the outrage cycles we frequently get stuck in.

Instead of boycotting and firing these people we could maybe hold them up as examples of how we can shift bigoted and discriminatory views. We could get them to talk about why they changed their perspectives and work with them to help convince others to do the same. But we seem to be more concerned about being outraged and morally right than about actually changing the world. That is not helping anyone.

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