In an increasingly polarized political environment (is that a nice way of saying “we all kinda hate each other right now”?), is there such a thing as forgiveness and rehabilitation in the public sphere? Should there be? I’m reminded again of these questions as Democratic Representative (and new presidential candidate) Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who just launched her bid on Friday, already faces criticism over old statements she had made against LGBTQ rights and communities (positions she seemingly inherited from her father, a prominent anti-LGBTQ politician in Hawaii).
As revelations continue to be made about Gabbard (one of the latest is that she worked with an organization that practices the highly discredited process of “gay conversion therapy”), the Representative’s new campaign is already on the defensive, quickly pointing out her previous apologies for her older statements and actions and highlighting her current record, which shows her as a strong supporter of LGBT rights. Even with her political conversion concerning gay rights, some are saying her candidacy is essentially over quicker than yesterday’s Patriots-Chargers game (hey, just because I’m boycotting doesn’t mean I can’t follow the score), as many Democratic voters are unwilling to look past her previous policies and words.
Gabbard is just the latest in a long line of politicians and celebrities – think Kevin Hart, Roseanne, Kathy Griffin, Megyn Kelly, James Gunn and more – caught by what some are calling “weaponized outrage” and others are simply calling accountability for one’s words. Chances are most of you reading that list of individuals think some of the people on that list were treated unfairly and that some of them got what was coming to them, which is what makes the current era, one that combines outrage with unforgiveness both complicated and dangerous.
What Marvel Taught Me (Other That Guys Named Chris Being Awesome)
Even when I try to turn off the politics in my brain with a good Marvel movie on cable, I stumble upon an unintentional (I think – Joss Whedon is a clever guy) social allegory, with Avengers: Age of Ultron surprisingly teaching me important political lessons, like “don’t create evil machines, or they might kill us all.” – No, seriously, here me out.
In Age of Ultron, heroes/science bros Tony Stark and Bruce Banner attempt to create an artificial intelligence to police the world and protect it from itself. Like any good scifi robot, their creation, Ultron, literally takes a mind (stone) of its own and quickly transforms from a potential defender of the vulnerable to a malicious force and a powerful weapon. Ultron ultimately ends up seeking to protect humanity by destroying humans (common robot logic), and wreaks havoc (including decimating an entire country) before he’s stopped.
Similarly, in the real world, we’ve together created rules of discourse (call it political correctness or simply not being a crappy human being) that were designed with noble purpose. The idea is that racism, sexism, homophobia and the like are not just jokes or normal parts of life, but destructive forces that impact and often ruin lives. And even if we dismissed such things on the past, we’ve come to a point in our evolution as a society to recognize and be able to create both a set of rules for discourse and conduct to protect our society and a powerful tool – public condemnation – to enforce the rules and combat violators.
As in the movie, however, something in the programming has gone awry, blurring the lines between a tool for justice and a weapon. Like Ultron, the outrage machine has claimed a number of noted figures across the public sphere: Roseanne for her probably racist and definitely stupid and ugly “joke” about former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett; Kevin Hart for his homophobic quips about his son; ironically, even one of Marvels most influential creative forces, James Gunn, fell to this tactic after his old social media jokes about rape and pedophilia were unearthed by conservative activists, ultimately getting him fired (but possibly ensuring that Suicide Squad 2 will be a good movie).
Oh, Yeah, Criminal Justice Reform Should Have Taught Us Something Too.
In case it’s not obvious from my previous articles, I’m not someone who rails against “political correctness” or mocks “social justice warriors.” I think social justice is actually quite worth fighting to achieve, and even if “politically correct” is a loaded term, I think the substance of the idea, i.e. “don’t be an a**hole to others, especially because they look/sound/love/believe differently than you” is pretty reasonable as well. As such, I think people should be held accountable for what they say and do, and if you say something outrageous, then outrage is the appropriate response. I just don’t think the response should end there.
The current “zero tolerance” approach to public outrage and condemnation has a number of shortcomings. It does not allow for nuance, satire or sarcasm; it can be employed disingenuously and hypocritically; it incentivizes some people, like our current President, to double and triple down on a**holishness as a political counter-strategy. Perhaps most importantly, though, it disincentivizes reflection, change and growth. If everyone is immediately and summarily judged by their worst mistake, comment or idea without the opportunity to reflect, apologize and make amends, why would anyone try to get better?
In the 80s and 90s, politicians on both sides of the aisle cooperated to pass a number of draconian “tough on crime” laws and sentence mandates, and now, in the era of mass incarceration, we’ve come to see just how bad they are. We’ve had individual victims of an unmerciful legal system, like Alice Johnson and Cyntoia Brown, given second chances once we realized that their lives were worth more than one mistake made long ago under bad circumstances. We’ve mostly realized that the death penalty does not make us safer (in fact, it might make us less safe; those facing the ultimate punishment aren’t going to confess or even submit to justice peacefully – they’re going to fight with everything they have). On a larger scale, people as disparate as Van Jones, Kim Kardashian, the Koch brothers, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump himself work together on criminal justice reform, which could potentially help millions of people obtain a second chance to do better than the worse moment of their lives.
The best alternative to the current age of unforgiveness is not to return to an earlier status quo when racism was acceptable, gay bashing was commonplace and sexism and rape culture were just the way life worked – for many Americans, America wasn’t great for us back then. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a third option between unrepentant prejudice, discrimination and hate on the one hand or unmerciful public outrage on the other. That third way is admittedly harder in some ways, as it requires more of us all – self reflection on the ways our words and actions may affect others directly and contribute to systems of discrimination and oppression more broadly; a desire to grow as people and as society; a willingness to educate those who don’t get the impact of what they say or do, and an ability to forgive those who hurt and offend us, even those who look, sound, act and believe very differently.
In the final act of Age of Ultron (oh, yeah, spoiler alerts), the Avengers are unable to simply erase Ultron – they can’t go back to the old status quo. Instead, over the objection of his teammates, Tony Stark goes tries again, bringing to life another machine named Vision. Whereas Ultron is a villain, Vision is a noble hero, one that uses force when necessary but with compassion. As Vision tells Ultron at the end of their epic battle “Humans are odd…but there is grace in their failings.” For us, we shouldn’t go back, but it would be wise to move forward from where we are now. Tulsi Gabbard, Kevin Hart. Kathy Griffin, James Gunn and the like shouldn’t get free passes, but if we want to come together as a society, they should be afforded the grace and the opportunity to grow.
Also, if you want your robot to be good, don’t give it an evil sounding name. “Ultron?” Really, you couldn’t predict how that was gonna go?