The “Moral Outrage Machine” of Twitter is infamous across the internet for its often staggering effects on cultural and political discourse. It is a left-leaning reactionary goliath built almost exclusively on self-righteous indignation and, on occasion, delirious levels of ill-considered emotionality. This machine has been incredibly important, especially when the legal and electoral pillars of our society fail to adequately tackle the issues of the day, such as the #metoo movement and climate change. The internet has provided us with the means and opportunity to define, and more importantly evolve, our society’s cultural morals faster than at any other point in our long history. We are able to collectivise and protest our disgust at the more toxic elements of our society, and that is truly something to marvel at. However, as with anything that relies on the trembling guiding hand of modern online discourse, it’s ripe for manipulation.
Between 2008-2011, James Gunn wrote some tweets. He called them “jokes”. I’ve seen them, and in his own words “they are certainly stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive and certainly not at all provocative in the ways I had hoped”. Many of his critics would agree with this, and so do I. But this admittance of guilt shows someone willing to grow, someone willing to be a better person. It is hard to be “good”. Most people see being good as a baseline. You’re born good, and people who do “bad” fall below that line, which everyone else manages to straddle. But it is so much harder to be good. It takes work to be a good person, you have to prove it. It is so much easier to be, or be complicit to, a bad person. Everyone does bad things. We’ve all been selfish, cruel or spiteful to varying degrees throughout our lives; we’ve all said and done things we regret. But being a good person should not require being an immediate paragon of virtue and fairness; we all have our vices and prejudices. Instead, it should be about working to better one’s self, to admit wrongdoing and learning from it. Since 2011, James Gunn has not made reference to any “joke” that even remotely falls in line with his old modus operandi, I think that’s a good start.
A part of this whole pantomime of faux-outrage that people miss is that these tweets surfaced in 2012, when he was first hired to helm Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. His immediate response was to apologise and disavow his past self for writing such unfunny and offensive rubbish. It was only brought back up in 2018 after James Gunn’s repeated criticism of President Donald Trump put him on the radar of Alt-Right blogger Mike Cernovich. He is notorious for his continuous attempts to take down left-leaning celebrities and cultural figures, such as Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty, Community) and Trevor Noah (the Daily Show); but his most famous escapade is the creation of the conspiracy theory “Pizzagate” - which led to a shooting in a pizzeria in 2017. Despite the many years of pleas and apology following those tweets, all it took was the manipulation of a single blogger to lead to social justice defender, ally of the left, James Gunn to be fired and socially humiliated.
This is not an attempt to delegitimise the people who are angry with Gunn, and feel his firing was justified. I completely understand why this happened. His tweets flew in the face of women, the LGBTQ+ community, sexual assault survivors and many others. He was also in his late-thirties when he first began making those tweets, far beyond the reasonable age to show such blatant immaturity, and callous disregard for others. Regardless of his intent, he publicly posted harmful and downright disgusting things. And then he was put in charge of a property that caters to children. But, surely the purpose of this cultural outrage is to highlight and change the individuals and structures that are rallied against. If not, then all that this becomes is a point-scoring match in which both sides act as self-indulgent hypocrites, unwilling and unable to bridge the gap that allows their ideas to grow. Nothing changes, nothing gets better; instead we just momentarily feel better about ourselves. Beyond just showing that such actions will not be tolerated, the way to win this culture war of sorts, is to show that we are the better people. That we won’t just tear down the poisonous ways of old, but that we will welcome those that wish to stand in the sun. And to those who just want to beat the Alt-Right and its allies, you will have a far greater victory by showing the likes of Mike Cernovuch that he can’t play you like a fiddle, that you’ll stand above the petty games that him and his ilk like to play, and hold James Gunn up as a trophy of victory.
This farce is about more than one successful director making a superhero film for a multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerate; it’s about how we treat these cases going forward. For years now, and especially in the wake of the #metoo movement, we have seen the growth of a zero-tolerance policy in regards to what would be considered “politically incorrect” language, iconography and actions. And much of this is a cultural pushback against decades, even centuries of inequality, abuse and negligence against minorities in our society. The anger is real, it’s earned, and it’s legitimate. Anger has proven itself to be an effective way to identify the problems in our cultural and societal constructs, but afterwards, when the anger fades, we must use a different course to actually accomplish change. Society is, at its basest component, people, and people are not inherently good. We do not start at that baseline, and neither does society. Just as we have to work, to be good, so does society. We will never be better, if we don’t allow people to be better. James Gunn is trying to be better.