James Gunn’s Offensive Tweets and Online Mob Justice

Are we really OK with operating under the assumption that people can’t change and mature over the years?
James Gunn
James Gunn at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con(Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Earlier today, Walt Disney announced that they had fired James Gunn from directing Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3 in light of some offensive tweets. Yes, the stuff that Gunn tweeted was awful and disgusting and I’m not going to defend or dismiss it. (I won’t share it here, but you can find screen caps easily enough if you want.) But a few thoughts on the whole messy situation:

1) Gunn has apologized for the tweets — many of them posted years ago — and has talked about how he’s grown past that sort of behavior. In other words, he hasn’t dismissed those tweets, but confessed and owned up to them. Which is what adults do.

2) The folks who ​“outed” him are right-wingers like Mike Cernovich (aka, the Pizzagate conspiracy theorist) who have posted plenty of disturbing and appalling content of their own.

3) Given his accusers, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a hit-job, since Gunn has been a very vocal anti-Trumper.

4) In this hyper-politicized age where everything is political, Disney had no choice but to fire Gunn. Which is a disturbing trend in and of itself. (And yes, I realize the irony of this in light of Gunn’s tweets re. the Roseanne situation back in May. But the situations aren’t exactly parallel. Gunn’s jokes were made years ago while Barr’s offensive rhetoric was still going strong.)

5) I find it ironic that right-wing folks are always complaining about social justice warriors and mob justice, and yet they have no qualms with adopting the exact same tactics when it suits them.

6) Everybody has posted stuff that, were it to be dredged up, could be used to shame and embarrass them. That’s just the stark reality of the social media age. It might be an offhand joke that, at the time, seemed like it was obviously in good fun. Or a crass reference that you thought nobody would ever read beyond your immediate circle of friends. It could even be a seemingly innocuous opinion that you no longer hold for some reason.

In any case, are we really OK with operating under the assumption that people can’t change and mature over the years? Are we willing to dismiss the idea that who a person is today may be totally different than the person they were years ago? Or do we automatically put people on trial for everything they’ve ever said, no matter how long ago they said it or what they’ve said since?

Yes, people should be held accountable for the things they say, especially if they have any measure of cultural or political power. At the same time, however, we need to realize that people change and grow. In other words, we need to exercise a little grace and common sense, especially when people own up to the bad things they’ve said and admit their foolishness — which Gunn has done.

And to be clear, I’m not saying this just because I like James Gunn and enjoyed his work on the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (and am looking forward to Volume 3) or because I might agree with him when it comes to Donald Trump. I’m saying this because I believe that grace and civility are good and even necessary things, especially when it comes to online interactions and behavior. And if we want to be treated with such, then we need to show it even (and especially) to those with whom we disagree.

Update #1: Not surprisingly, Matt Zoller Seitz has a really good Twitter thread that looks at James Gunn’s firing as the latest round in an ongoing culture war between Hollywood and the right.

Update #2: Actor Dave Bautista, who portrays Drax in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, has defended Gunn on Twitter, calling him ​“one of the most loving, caring, good natured people I have ever met.” Which makes one wonder how other actors that Gunn has worked with (e.g., Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks) view these revelations.

Update #3: All of the major Guardians of the Galaxy cast members, including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Bradley Cooper, have released a joint statement in support of Gunn. ​“We believe the theme of redemption has never been more relevant than now.”