How Knee-Jerk Internet Outrage Is Turning 2014 Into the Year of the Apology
A few weeks back, my friend fucked up. He fucked up badly.
For a brief period, he was probably the most hated person on the internet, at least in certain circles, and what he did permanently crippled his career and the image of those around him. He reacted with an apology/explanation that some felt heartfelt, but many more saw as insufficient penance, and he will no longer be creating in the manner he once did. It marked, at least the foreseeable future, the end of a promising person whose work raised up the work of others.
The specifics do not matter to this conversation. I feel no need to defend him, nor can I weigh in as the wronged party. What is of interest is the microcosm of a cycle that our online culture seems suddenly hardwired into, and the effect of this cycle on the year of 2014.
When my friend’s mistake became public, his name was not immediately attached. The wrongdoing I saw triggered a “ugh this guy should pay; probably burned alive or whatever we’re doing now” type of pitchfork mentality that I know we’ve all been conditioned towards, especially when presented by wrongdoings in simple terms such as a Facebook share or a screen-captured image or even an outsider’s response piece. When I found out who it was, I shut down completely, as a wave of panicked disgust took over. This was not some random idiot on the internet, this was someone whom I considered a peer, and based on our interests, personalities, and friends, someone for whom I might be interchangeable.
It was the disgust of seeing the internal become external and internal again. Of watching someone make a terrible lapse in judgment that I’d love to pretend I’m smarter than, but then of course, so did he.
Amidst the entire Shia debacle, in which a creator (yes, I’m using the term loosely) made a terrible error (and then a long series of errors), there was one moment that particularly stung me. I looked up to see the words “STOP CREATING” written in the sky above Beverly Hills, albeit with an insufferable hashtag. This idea has been a constant gnaw in the back of my head since last year, when video game designer Phil Fish, in an argument with a journalist, responded by cancelling his latest video game and leaving that industry forever. In a world that is similarly looking to redefine itself as intellectually safe, standup comedy, I’ve known several people who have given up entirely, out of fear of becoming the basis of someone’s reaction piece. The thrust here is the idea that creators, whether you agree with them or not, are giving up on trying out of the fear they will hurt someone’s feelings.
Create something emotional and candid and true to you. Unless it hurts someone else's feelings. Then apologize for even thinking about it.— Dan Wilbur (@DanWilbur) January 29, 2014
As a creator, I’ve experienced this feeling too. I’ve been accused of stealing jokes from people who have never seen me perform, nor have I seen them. I have offended people to the point they have written my employers, demanding my firing. Worse, I have been afraid to try out ideas on even very small crowds of people, because if not executed perfectly, I have seen how high those stakes can rise, very quickly. When you are creating on such a small scale with little by way of reward and the risks can spiral so quickly, why choose to express anything?
These reactions make my heart scream cowardice. Nothing has ever made me feel lower than the honest belief that I cannot speak my mind without fear of repercussion. But, and here’s the rub: The reason that so many people take to the internet to voice their displeasure is because for the very first time in history, all voices can be equal, and projected from a “safe” space. In all honesty, I wouldn’t reverse this cultural direction if I could, because it enforces a level of responsibility for all that my parents generation can only dream of.
For each time I’ve seen someone taken down unjustly, I’ve also seen an honest response to a difficult situation that has not only educated the person in question, but also educated me. For example, I don’t think that my Midwestern upbringing gave me the slightest clue as to what transgender issues might involve, but the discussion that the internet is having in regards to Jared Leto is the kind of thing that exposes millions of people to incredibly educational points of view and experiences. Likewise, if a fear of doing wrong towards others, especially artistically, serves to deter a creator from making or saying something, there’s an excellent chance this higher standard will serve to push them to creating stronger work. Those who make must do so in a way that no one could possibly confuse with the work of another. It leaves a very small target, like the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star, where we must now assume great art is made.
I spoke with someone about our friend’s fuck-up, referring to him as “the most hated person of the internet for at least the rest of today” and suggested we should all start keeping a stump apology on hand, because the update of the Warhol quote is that “in the future, each person will be hated for 15 hours.” That stump apology idea was not met with laughter, rather a knowing glance that indicated it wasn’t the worst idea. When Dustin wrote up the Stephen King twitter apology he did an excellent job of capturing that “oh shit” moment when the universe takes what you said the wrong way. In a world where anyone can make a huge mistake, from a film they worked years on to a drunken text exchange, it seems like we’re headed for a culture of constant apologies, ranging from the personal and painful to the meaningless. Why are we even invested in the knee-jerk opinions of a horror writer over a family he’s never met? Why are we trying to trap Jerry Seinfeld into a sexist quote? Do we honestly NEED this?
After my friend posted his apology, I wound up running into him on the street. If you’ve ever held a conversation with the Most Hated Person Of The Day during their big day … Look, I think that “pitchfork mentality” trigger I once possessed is gone forever. Of the things we discussed, one was his admission of the overwhelming number of PR firms who had reached out to him, offering to help “spin” his situation. To his credit, his response was that “spin” was the last thing he wanted, in favor of publicly working through the issue and hoping both that his credible history and dedication to making this right would make for a better teachable moment than any misguided personal marketing campaign.
I’m not sure if you caught it, but I’ll repeat: there is an industry built on your personal outrage. We have been at this for long enough that redemption, education, and resolution have taken a backseat to a PR machine fueled by indignation. Take a moment to imagine if Philip Seymour Hoffman had overdosed, but had lived through it. Based on the people you saw that were furious/disappointed in his drug use, do you think it’s a stretch to imagine he would’ve had to offer a public apology? Does the very idea of this hurt you?
When Natasha Leggero was reprimanded over a joke she made on New Year’s Eve, she offered a public non-apology which was applauded for its unwillingness to bend in the face of selective outrage. I like this. I like this direction. I like how it dismantles a machine we all know we’re feeding. I like how my friend (who still very much fucked-up) opted for starting meaningful conversations in place of offering meaningless piecemeal, hoping his unfortunate choices could help others, and in the process, fix parts of himself.
Mostly, I like you. I think you’re smarter than this, because I’d like to think that I am too. I think if January is any indication, 2014 looks like a long year of apologies, and that does none of us any good.
Let’s have conversations instead. The only thing holding us back is trying to get others to agree to a level of reasonable discourse. The case for that is to remember what it is that disgusts you, and whether it does so because it was internal or external, and what that reflects about you. Admitting we’re all fuck-ups, in our way, does a lot towards building something permanent and positive in the face of fuck-uppery. I believe we’d all prefer that to this:
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