This week we got our latest taste of the internet outrage machine when it was revealed that Lena Dunham wasn’t compensating artists who were performing on her book tour. You all know how I feel about this, so I agreed with the sentiment that she should pay artists. Luckily, later the same day, Dunham tweeted that she understood the complaints, agreed that artists deserve compensation, and stated unequivocally that the performers on her tour would be compensated. Yay! The internet works! Someone’s mistake was pointed out, and they admitted their oversight and corrected it! Simple, right? Well, no. There will now always be people who talk about “that time Lena Dunham didn’t pay performers” even though this issue was settled before any opening acts would have performed for free, because the internet is bad at forgiveness and worse at forgetting. After all, we still haven’t forgiven her for writing a scene in which a character she plays, who is high at the time, describes herself as “the voice of our generation. Or at least A voice. Of A generation.”
As the internet gets more and more into its role as the arbiter of morality, ethics, and social grace, the less often people wait to hear the whole story before passing judgement. After all, why give anyone time to explain when the situation is so clear? Even when, time and again, we find out that we were hoaxed, deceived, or that things were not what they seemed at first.
Often, the outrage seems to be directed within groups of like-minded individuals as well. Because if people don’t at least halfway agree with you, they’re not going to care about your criticism, but when we catch someone we feel aligned with in a mistake we feel let down and we know that we can hurt them. Because they do care. One of Dunham’s biggest critics is Gawker, which previously put out a literal bounty on un-photoshopped pictures of Dunham from her Vogue shoot because…? Dunham responded with a dig on her show. Gawker and Dunham’s Girls play to almost exactly the same audience, which is why each one matters to the other enough to leave a mark. When Emma Watson spoke at the UN to introduce the “He for She” campaign, some of her biggest critics were not anti-feminists, but feminists who felt since her ten minute speech failed to encompass all of feminism and the various off-shoots, that she had failed as an ambassador for that particular cause.
There are many examples of people who have been ruined by headline grabbing incidents that overshadowed otherwise good work: The political career of Howard Dean, who was the governor of Vermont for 12 years, is still summed up by one video of him yelling in front of a crowd. Tom Cruise became a national joke after jumping on Oprah’s couch, despite never behaving in a similar way before or since. Anne Hathaway retreated from her career because people found her too earnestly ambitious, which is apparently a bad thing. There are some people who deserve to have their crimes remembered, but the internet seems to have no system for allowing that they may have moved on or grown in any way. It is terrifying. All of us grow and change, each and every day of our lives in numerous small ways. I can’t imagine having to live day to day with the possibility that something I did or said 3, 5, or 10 years ago might be dragged out and used against me. What is there to say but “Yes, I did that, but I have learned” from it over and over again while a nameless, faceless mob continues to judge you as though you haven’t?
We’ve gotten to the point where we have learned to be skeptical of certain kinds of internet stories, unless all of you really did think that woman in Florida got a third boob. Maybe it’s time we also apply a grace period to these various celebrity “scandals” to give them time to collect their thoughts and respond. In Dunham’s case, it took less than a day.