Friday, January 11, 2019

An apology in three parts

Do we have a moral obligation when we hurt someone to turn around and become their allies? That’s the way the current kerfuffle over Kevin Hart’s homophobic views from a decade ago is being framed.

If you haven’t been following the news this past week, stand-up comedian Kevin Hart was supposed to host the Oscars this year, but got bumped when somebody brought up the homophobic parts of his routine from some years ago, as well as a number of homophobic tweets he made at the time.  Hart immediately put out the first part of an apology. “I’m sorry,” he said, and followed that by insisting that he had “already addressed that issue” and wants to move on, leaving many people questioning his sincerity.

There are three things you can do when you have hurt someone - if you want to right the wrong, that is.  The first step, the absolute minimum, is to utter sincere words of apology. The second step, the moral minimum, is to vow not to repeat the offense - and then keep that vow. Hart appears to have gone that far. What keeps the controversy going is there’s a third step missing: he has not provided satisfactory evidence of remorse. And it’s show, by the way; not tell. Declaring your regret is one thing; demonstrating it is quite another.

Hart believes he has taken this third step by not issuing any homophobic remarks since those days when they were a regular part of his routine. Furthermore, he resents being expected to do more. “I’ve stopped beating my wife. Don’t expect me to love her as well,” is what that sounds like to a lot of gay people. MSNBC’S Don Lemon has asked Hart to do more, to “become an ally” of the gay community.” Hart says no to that, and many conservatives support Hart’s claim that the first part of an apology is enough. One conservative source characterized Lemon’s view as asking Hart to “sacrifice his dignity.” Actor James Woods, focusing only on the form of an apology and not on the content, sees those clamoring for a more sincere apology as a "rage mob" and tells Hart to hold his ground. "Don't climb onto the cross," he tells him. "You'll never get back down with this bunch."

But what Lemon and others are looking for is not more "daily apologies," - the words, "I'm sorry," in other words - but some evidence, other than the absence of repeated offense, of sincerity. He would like Hart to address black parents of gay kids and tell them directly not to make the same mistake he made. Not gonna happen, looks like.

If you listen carefully to Hart in any of the many subsequent interviews he has given, what becomes clear is that Hart has a giant blind spot. He has made the Oscar cancellation about “trolls” who are out to get him. He has made the kind of homophobic humor he once expressed little more than “the values of the day” and sees himself as having kept up with the times in shedding those homophobic values. He has hidden behind the claim that a comedian has the right to be edgy, to say things “that other people are only thinking” without stopping to question whether what you’re saying and what they are thinking is funny only if your humor is based on the oppression or disparagement of others.

I have to admit that I didn’t know Kevin Hart’s name before this story hit the news. I learned of it by watching Ellen’s interview, the one in which she accepts his apology and talks of phoning the Academy to urge them to let Hart do the Oscars after all. At the finish of this interview, I was kind of convinced that Hart was right. This story is “old stuff” and we should all move on.

It took the Don Lemon interview, which I watched next, to make me realize how easy it is to be persuaded by the last thing you hear or read. When you think about it, you realize that the harm that Kevin Hart did when he spoke of smashing a doll’s house over his son’s head - never mind that it was “just a joke” - was to reinforce self-hatred on the part of young black gay kids. And confirm in the minds of their parents that they aren’t alone in wanting their little boys not to turn out gay. If Ellen had brought black gay kids on stage to speak for themselves, instead of attempting to speak for them, one suspects the “forgiveness” might have taken a different turn.

Lemon, a gay black man himself, at least speaks with more authority, and that no doubt explains why he’s on the other side. His is only one voice, to be sure, but he does have some authority when claiming to speak for black gays, as he did on The View today.  He elaborates in that interview on what he means by “being an ally.” He doesn’t expect Hart to march in a Gay Parade, or carry a rainbow flag, or go out of his way to champion the cause symbolically. But he does expect more than an apology that comes out: “I said I’m sorry. What more do you want!?”

Here's one of Hart's tweet's in question (I’m quoting from the Guardian):

One of my biggest fears is my son growing up and being gay. That’s a fear. Keep in mind, I’m not homophobic, I have nothing against gay people, be happy. Do what you want to do. But me, being a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will. Now with that being said, I don’t know if I handled my son’s first gay moment correctly. Every kid has a gay moment but when it happens, you’ve got to nip it in the bud!

And it would appear that’s a step up from earlier twitter comments:

  1. @wayne215: lmao, that’s why you sweat 4 know reason u fat faced fag
  3. “Why does DamienW profile pic look like a gay billboard for AIDS…..Boooom, I’m on fire tonight”

When confronted with these tweets, repeated in some of his stand-up acts in the past, Hart’s response is invariably, “I’ve addressed that,” and “I’m movin’ on.”

To get the full effect of the development of the controversy, start with the Ellen interview.  and then watch Don Lemon’s rebuttal. If you have the time, you can get a fuller understanding from listening to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, and to Andy Cohen on his program on Sirius XM, and it will be clear to you, I’m pretty sure, that Hart just doesn’t get what the fuss is.

In the Terry Gross interview, Hart speaks of his act as “being funny at the time.” And of comedians being at the cutting edge of humor. And of people being too sensitive about touchy subjects and how hard it is to crack jokes anymore.  There is little doubt Hart feels precious little responsibility for the hurt. It was the times. It was his father’s influence. It was before he knew better. “I’ve learned,” he keeps repeating, as if the central issue was Kevin Hart himself and not the harm done by homophobia running wild in the land. Hart’s got a giant ego, and he can’t seem to get it through his head that when he declares he’s learned to be a better man, that people believe him, but are still waiting to see evidence of that missing third part of an apology, putting right what was once done wrong.

And that brings us to an important moral question. Do we have an obligation to become “allies” of those we hurt? In my view, we do have that obligation.

Hart says on the Andy Cohen show that he and Don Lemon had an off-the-record conversation in which they both admitted that they get the other person’s point of view. I can’t do anything with that second-person report; I can only go by what is said publicly.

You have to grant that he has a point. He should not be pilloried as if he were a white supremacist or the kind of guy who believes you can grab women by their private parts if you’re famous. He has a right to pick his own causes to throw his weight behind.

Our language has evolved with the advent of identity politics. Victims of hate speech (and of careless disparaging remarks, as well) are now joining forces with others in the same boat and taking on the political connotations of a community. Instead of hearing "I’m against racism," one hears "I’m a friend to the black community.” The same goes for the women’s community, the Muslim community, the dwarf community, and virtually any other group of people who feel in any way neglected, put upon, or otherwise worthy of attention. The bird-watching community, the glucose-intolerant community, the cheese-free pizza community. It’s easy to ridicule the phenomenon of what, to some, is a raised consciousness, and to others, is nothing more than a ridiculous, extreme form of political correctness.

But just because the bandwagon has become overly burdened by too many people jumping on it, that doesn’t mean that the cause of raising consciousness about racism, sexism and homophobia is of any less importance. The battle to get white people in America to understand that the Dixie flag might be to black southerners what the swastika is to Jews is a serious positive step in the fight against America’s greatest shame - the enslavement of black people from Africa by the Europeans who settled this continent. And I note, not just in passing, the genocide of the native peoples of the American continent in the process as a co-equal evil. Telling American Indians "we're sorry" is one thing. Marking October 12th on the calendar as Native Americans Day instead of Columbus Day, while it won't resolve the debate over whether what happened to them can justifiably be characterized as genocide, is at least an effort to raise our consciousness about our national history.

The “biggies” in the American conscious-raising process are the fights against racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Not just because they are the only great causes that represent human progress in this day and age, but because they are historically the biggest stumbling blocks on America’s road to democracy.

Contrary to what Kevin Hart has to say on the subject, I think it’s not sufficient for Americans to say “I’m sorry” to blacks, women, gays, Jews, American Indians and others; Not sufficient to promise not to repeat the oppression.

I've said repeatedly that I think Germans need to do more than say “I’m sorry” to the Jews. They need to be doing exactly what they are doing. They are clearly not oppressing Jews, but including them in their number and remembering Jewish contributions to German history. They are putting “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine) in the street in front of houses where Jews once lived, to remind the people of today of this shameful period in German history. The have made it illegal for anyone to express approval of Hitler and the Nazi ideology in public. And they are doing their best to welcome Jews who are returning to Germany in great numbers; Germany’s Jewish population is growing faster than in any other country in Europe. And most of the immigration is coming from Israel.

Japanese have apologized to their fellow Asians for the deaths of millions during their period of military aggression till their defeat in 1945. And they have not only built solid trade and cultural exchange relations with all their Asian neighbors, but written a no-war clause into their constitution. Their words are important, but it’s their actions that show their sincerity.

I’m with Don Lemon. If Kevin Hart wants to demonstrate sincerity behind his frequently repeated words of apology, he will recognize that words are cheap. He will make the cause of gay liberation along with the struggles for the rights women, for blacks and for any and all historically oppressed groups his own. A little consciousness raising would put a little meat on the bones of his claim to have changed since he made those homophobic remarks eight or ten years ago.

I'm always surprised to find people who have suffered minority group oppression themselves who cannot translate that experience into oppression more broadly.

How would you feel, Kevin, if you saw a white parent say to their kid, "I don't care whether you respect black people or not. Racism is not my thing."

It won't overtax you, Kevin, to say to gay black kids: "Don't be ashamed to be what you are." And to their parents: "Love your kids. The gay ones just as much as the straight ones. And help them grow up to be proud gay adults."

It’s that easy. You lose nothing. Certainly not your dignity.

And everybody wins.



arvind said...

Amen. Thanks for articulating your thinking. You are right, KH doesn't get it and is being defensive. For my part, I have trouble separating people's work from their beliefs and values. Clint Eastwood ruined his own movies for me by taking a swipe at Obama during his 2nd presidential campaign. Louis CK's star will never rise in my eyes. And I will continue to ignore KH. Life is too short. Give me AOC!

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