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Note from Rick Williamson: The Popcorn Diet usually tries to stay away from politics or keep a level head when discussing it. But what happened this week was too much for me to ignore. We're always up for spirited, respectful debate, which is what makes this so upsetting to me personally. Please accept this article and these views as someone who is trying very hard to comprehend the lightning-fast changes our society and our community is going through. Thanks!
It’s late July and San Diego Comic-Con is now over. Every year, hundreds of thousands of nerds, geeks, and fans descend on the beautiful Southern California city to celebrate their fandom of everything from anime and DnD to movies and, yes, comics. It is a place where excitement levels are high not just in celebration of the past, but in anticipation of what will be coming. As has become regular, the major movie studios usually bring out their massive upcoming slates to preview in increasingly complex, show-stopping presentations to drum up hype and give dedicated fans exclusive sneak peaks. This year, however, not only did Disney and Marvel skip the hallowed Hall H presentation, they made immense splashes across fandom in a different way: by firing Guardians of the Galaxy writer/director James Gunn from it’s 3rd installment for ‘offensive’ tweets posted nearly a decade ago.
I think in order to accurately demonstrate why this is much different from a company executing their right to fire based on behavior, it’s important to ask and focus on several items.
- When were these tweets sent, and when did Disney know about them? (Spoiler alert to both questions: it was a while ago)
- Why did this all come to light now? How do decade-old tweets suddenly become popular again?
- What kind of precedent does this set for social media, professional conduct, and online mobs?
Starting with when the tweets were sent, it’s clear that these off the cuff bursts of Twitter content (which you can see here) were posted by Gunn between 2008 and 2010, anywhere between 2 and 4 years before he was announced as Disney’s choice to helm the first Guardians.
It bears repeating that, in the opinion of this writer, while the Tweets in question come off as jokes, they are mostly off-color and controversial jokes that miss more than they hit. I just don’t find them very funny, save for maybe a couple, but I’m certainly not shocked by them. I’m not shocked because James Gunn built his career on making early films with Troma Entertainment, known for horror films heavy in farce, satire, gore, nudity, and pushing the boundaries. His more mainstream efforts, including his online series PG Porn and films Slither and Super, likewise featured depraved suggestion of sex and violence.
All of that leads to this: Gunn’s history with grotesque humor is not, and has not ever been surprising or hidden. His fans were well aware of what kind of madness he was capable of, and that’s exactly what made his hiring at Marvel so exciting. It was risky, it put a multimillion dollar production in the hands of a man who, to put it mildly, clearly thought outside the box.
To suggest that Disney hired Gunn without knowing of his history as a filmmaker is not only flippant, but it’s outright ignorant. Likewise, in the age of Social Media, it is nearly impossible to think that Disney wasn’t in some way aware of the existence of his Twitter history.
But let’s pretend that Disney didn’t know who they really hired back before 2012. Let’s make a grand, sweeping assumption that one of the biggest companies in the history of the world didn’t do their homework. Fine, I can accept that. Except that Gunn apologized for his Twitter nonsense in 2012. Disney DEFINITELY knew by then what Gunn had put together, and had the confidence in him not only to sign him for Guardians, Vol. 2, but to even have people thinking he’d take over a larger role as a shepherd for new talent moving into Marvel’s future. Disney knew what they had all the way up until they fired James Gunn.
So after two successful movies, numerous public appearances , and a seemingly healthy working relationship, what changed? Why did this all come to light now? How does something that has been known about for nearly a decade get brought back into public with such a fury?
It happened because right-wing provocateur Mike Cernovich set his sights on Gunn with the exact and expresses purpose of getting him fired. Cernovich is a well-documented personality who has made it his quest to use peoples words against them as some type of proof that they, particularly the Hollywood elite, operate as a level of evil. He is one of the people most responsible for spreading the lies, misinformation and conspiracy theory nonsense from the Pizzagate incident during the 2016 presidential election. He favorite trick is to take these types of off-colored comments and jokes and spin them to his 400k+ followers as evidence of criminal activity. Baby jokes become ‘evidence’ of pedophilia, rape jokes become ‘evidence’ of actual rape.
In this case, Gunn did or said something to piss Cernovich off, and Cernovich replied with a borderline obsessive compilation of Gunn’s old tweets. He then encouraged his followers to grab their torches and pitchforks to get Gunn run out of his livelihood.
Make no mistake, Gunn isn’t absolved of anything here. The tweets are clearly in what is considered to be bad taste, and he himself has grabbed his torch and pitchfork to get his own followers to make moves against those he disagrees with. But, at least as of this writing, nothing Gunn has ever done has actively effected anybody in their occupation or their well being. His jokes had no target and no victim, other than shocking some people and offending others. He said some off color things a decade ago, apologized for them several times between now and then, and managed to anger someone who then sent an angry mob after him, resulting in his firing.
Why is this chain of events dangerous in the age of social media? What does this mean for other celebrities and public personalities? More importantly, what does it mean for every day people?
In short, it means shut up and get in line or face the consequences of the angry, faceless mob.
But it’s so much deeper than that.
Before we get into why it’s dangerous, let’s make note of one very important thing. It is absolutely within the rights of a private business to fire anyone under their employ for things said in public, be it on social media or otherwise. Business have to answer to their customers, and often times their shareholders, balancing the effects of an incident on a small amount of people versus a massive amount. I don’t think Disney did anything wrong for firing James Gunn for his tweets. What they did wrong was accept it for 8 years and let an angry mob dictate their actions.
With the internet, we’re given unprecedented access to a wealth of information, including personal information of private citizens that can be accessed by anyone with the right follower on Twitter. The practice of identifying an individual and turning an angry mob against them isn’t anything new, but it’s a tactic that has gain popularity by people acting in bad faith on both sides of the political spectrum.
Although I’m sure it started earlier, one of the first widespread examples of doxxing or releasing private information came out of the Gamer Gate scandal. Gamer Gate was when legions of angry video game fans discovered and released the private information of several female video game journalists, including address, phone, email, and other info. They did so out of a stance of unproven moral superiority, stating that these female journalists (and even female programers) were rigging reviews by various means. That is the most readers digest version of Gamer Gate that you’ll find, and there are many other publications that have done far more research on it. I encourage you to check them out.
After that, the tactic rose as a way of combating the parallel rise of the Alt-Right and Nazi-like groups in America. Certain Twitter accounts of users on the Left would take pictures of Alt-Right protestors and put them online, looking for information as a means of getting them fired. In a country of Free Speech, a small few Twitter accounts were able to take a private citizens picture and use it in attempt to ruin their lives, get them fired from their jobs, or expelled from their schools, all because, to put the the most simply, they had warring ideologies.
Even James Gunn himself is not absolved from this type of tactic, using Twitter as platform to sometimes directly reach out to insult and expose those who he feels (rightfully or otherwise) are racist, dangerous people. He takes what he perceives as ‘bad’ and shows his 500k+ followers how to react to such a bad thing.
Let’s pause here for a second.
It is very, VERY important that I say this: I unequivocally despise Nazis and the Alt-Right. I want that to be very clear.
However, what I do want to focus on is the concept of using this online, angry-mob tactic to attack someone because they have different ideas. Yes, I’m aware that the Alt-Right has very very dangerous different ideas, but it’s important that we boil it down to the most basic thought:
“This person has expressed something that I find WRONG and BAD and now I will do whatever I can to ruin them.”
I think that the great majority of people have no problem applying that concept to Nazis. Of course the majority of people think Nazis are bad and need to be shut down. We’re 100% absolute okay with this because it’s such a radical place of thought that has a history of infesting countries beyond thought and into terrible, deadly action. They absolutely deserve it when you look at the platform of their ideals.
Regardless of that platform, the Left successfully learned how to weaponize ideals on the internet. They took someone’s picture and circulated it enough that not only did it get that person fired, but their previous place of employment had to put up signs begging for the targeted idea attack to stop because they had already been fired.
Essentially, a new weapon, a tactic, had been successfully created and used in these instances. The tactic of mobilizing followers on social media to find a persons identity, discover every private details about them, and then use that to destroy them had been deployed successfully.
But the biggest problem with this is escalation, as we are seeing with James Gunn, and even days later attempting to use the on-brand tweets of shock comedian Anthony Jeselnik (as well as comedians Patton Oswald and Michael Ian Black) as a means of ‘evidence’ that these are terrible people. First it was Nazis, which was totally okay. Then it escalates to perceived comments or even jokes on racism, rape, and pedophilia. Where will the next step take us?
Again, it’s important to remember that I’m not focusing on the content on a lot of these ideas, merely that they are ideas themselves. Nazism is terrible and should be stamped out. So is racism and rape and pedophilia. But to then use mere association with a political party, or jokes about these topics, as grounds for an angry mob to descend upon people, is setting a very dangerous precedent. It’s dangerous because it allows no control over what people perceive as ‘bad’ in the future. Who are the ones to decide what is bad? The angry, the offended, the people who want to snuff out anything and anyone that upsets them.
It the classic ‘Give a Mouse a Cookie’ scenario. In this case, if you give a mouse (the internet) a cookie (attacking and posting private information of Nazis or Alt-Right protestors), then they are going to want milk (attacking people who use the N-word while quoting rap lyrics), and if they get mile, they’re going to want a straw (attacking James Gunn for making twitter jokes about rape, AIDS, and pedophilia). And then after that straw, where do we go?
I argue that it’s already happening, as was the case of The League star and Mark Duplass tweeting about controversial conservative personality Ben Shapiro. Duplass, in a now-deleted tweet, said the following,
“Fellow liberals: If you are interested at all in ‘crossing the aisle’ you should consider following @benshapiro 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.”
Liberal Twitter lost it’s mind. Thousands of tweets poured in railing Duplass, and not long after he posted an actually apology for saying that Ben Shapiro was nice to him.
What would’ve happened, do you think, if Duplass would not have apologized? Is it such a far stretch to think that the online mob would’ve gone after whatever current deals he has in place, trying to get him fired for expressing his own opinion? Is it really out of the question to think that the right person with hundreds of thousands of followers could get their followers to say “fire Mark Duplass or we won’t watch your product”?
Do we not see the pattern that is starting to arise? We’ve gone so quickly from destroying Nazis to destroying thoughts. We’ve already, in the span of less than a year, started taking shots at things that offend us. The Right is using this weaponized outrage to attack people who actually make a living telling provocative jokes, because they’re offended and they don’t like them. They attack middle-of-the-road Republicans for being willing to make deals with Democrats. The Left has done the same thing, escalating their attacks not just on Alt-Right members, but on Conservatives in general, or, in the case of Duplass, on their fellow Liberals who dare to say nice things about Conservatives.
What will happen in the future if someone tweets a Bible verse that offends the wrong person? What will happen if you put out a message supporting Black Lives Matter that pisses someone off?
“Well maybe if they didn’t tweet things that rub people the wrong way, this wouldn’t happen to them.” This is blatant victim blaming, akin to saying “if she wasn’t dressed that way, she wouldn’t have gotten assaulted”. It is only up to you, the individual, to make your choices, and you shouldn’t be forced to bend or tailor those thoughts and choices based around a fear of what might happen to you. Don’t wear a miniskirt and you won’t get raped. Don’t make a joke about babies and you won’t get your private info splashed up on the internet. Don’t do this, or you’ll get attacked. Shut up. Stay in line. Don’t misbehave, or else.
It’s getting so bad that people call into question the humor of jokes to argue their validity of existence. “That’s not funny, so they shouldn’t say it.” But humor is not some baseline for what people get to say and not say. Just because you don’t find a joke funny doesn’t make it any less a joke. Then it escalates to assessing the actual definition of a joke as opposed to, say, a statement of intent or a confession of an act. Some arguments put forth that a rape joke is not only offensive, but is now evidence as to the teller being pro-rape or maybe even a rapist themselves. The same goes with jokes about pedophilia, with some treating them as being supportive of the acts themselves, as well as evidence of participation. Hell, even Cernovich himself never framed his argument as ‘James Gunn said offensive things’. He framed it as ‘James Gun said offensive things and that is evidence he is a rapist and a pedophile”.
That is one of the biggest problems currently with the Court of Public Opinion and the online Rage Lawyers trying to make cases to them. The spin facts into their own narrative, they use intellectual dishonesty, shame, and mob mentality to get you to shut up or suffer the consequences. By rushing to wipe all thought that is ‘bad’ including Nazi propaganda and racist remarks, the door has been opened for others to attack what they allege is also ‘bad’ including crude jokes and vicious rhetoric. Worse even yet, now we have lawmakers, appointed government officials, calling into question these tweets as well, as Senator Ted Cruz decided to chime in:
This should be terrifying. This is a sitting government official essentially calling for investigation and potential prosecution of a private citizen because of their jokes. This is Orwellian, something that feels like a seed that could sprout into the worst nightmares of totalitarian fantasy.
We, the public, or our government officials, cannot afford to fall for these mental gymnastics, and we cannot be the type of society, in real life or online, that seeks to shut people up because what they say is off color or offensive. This is country of compromise and ideas, it is a country where despite not agreeing with the person across from us, has been built on making deals that benefit everyone. This is a country that allows for the freedom of speech and ideas, even if that speech is hateful. It is not a country where you get to punch protestors because you don’t agree with them, or think they’re dangerous. This is not a country where you get to assassinate people’s character and livelihood because the jokes that they made aren’t funny. This is a country where you battle those ideas in the ballot box, where you mobilize your fellow Americans to vote out those who would nurture such thoughts.
Again, just to reiterate, this has NOTHING to do with a private company firing an employee because of off color remarks. That is, and should be, well within the company’s rights to do. What is has to do is the escalation of thought police within the public sector.
But that’s not what happened to James Gunn, and it’s not what happened to Cole White, the cook from Top Dog mentioned above. These instances, the social media mob, regardless of the side they are on, saw something that they didn’t like. It wasn’t the company that saw it and did anything, it was the mob saying “or else”, and the company bending under the possible torrent of backlash from an angry mob banging at their doors with torches and pitchforks.
Frankly, if it comes to choosing between someone who says something that I find offensive versus the angry mob, I’ll always go against the mob. The mob is irrational, the mob is angry. The mob carries out justice with torches and pitchforks, without critical thinking. The mob flows like a virus, choosing who is bad and why they are bad and why they need to go. The mob cannot be trusted, and for even saying that, maybe one day the mob will come for me too. Maybe it will come for you.