Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Hollywood's New "Zero Tolerance" on Offensive Speech Makes Zero Sense

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James Gunn

'Guardians of the Galaxy' director James Gunn's recent firing over old tweets and a Paramount TV exec’s dismissal amid racially charged comments only reinforce an "atmosphere of fear" and fail to account for the "totality of the person," writes the Hollywood Reporter columnist.

In the iconic TV series Kung Fu, Shaolin newbie Caine is challenged by a wise monk to walk a length of fragile rice paper: “You must walk the rice paper without leaving any marks. This will signify that you can walk without making any sounds.” After many failed attempts over the years, Caine finally traverses the rice paper leaving it unmarked. My late friend and teacher Bruce Lee (who came up with the idea for Kung Fu) would probably say that to walk without making any sounds has multiple meanings, but the most important aspect is to live humbly in a state of kindness and compassion, without deliberately causing pain to others. The sounds of people in power — particularly people in politics, journalism, and entertainment — have effects far beyond themselves. The recent Hollywood news indicates that not only that some of these people cannot walk without making sounds, but the sounds they make are damaging to others and themselves. What should we wise monks do about them?

The list of rice paper stumblebums is impressive. Paramount TV president Amy Powell was fired last week for making “racially charged” comments while discussing the reboot of First Wives Club that would feature a predominantly black cast. A day later, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired as director of the third installment of the Guardians movies for a series of edgy “jokes” he tweeted between 2008 and 2011. Within hours of that, a backlash erupted against the trailer of a new Netflix series, Insatiable, claiming the show fat-shames girls, resulting in 11,000 signatures demanding the show be cancelled. All this just weeks after Roseanne Barr’s insensitive comments, whether intentionally racist or not, got her show cancelled and Papa John’s founder got booted from his own company for using the n-word. The punishment was swift and final.

But was it fair? Or beneficial? Did it budge the national Socially Insensitive Meter one notch toward respectful?

It’s definitely important that businesses are vigilant in maintaining a strict corporate policy that does not tolerate racist, homophobic or misogynist language or behavior. But it’s also important that we avoid the zero-tolerance approach that does not take individual circumstances into consideration. Most studies confirm that zero tolerance has failed in regard to every problem it has been applied to, from drugs to schools to Trump’s recent immigration policy. This kind of draconian approach doesn’t educate people so that they might become more self-aware and pass that new-found sensitivity along; it creates an atmosphere of fear of sharing ideas and opinions, so that what comes out is sanitized for your safety.

I don’t know what Amy Powell said. I’m pretty sure it was offensive to some of the people who heard it. They were probably right to be offended. But unless she has a documented history of blurting out racist comments, I doubt Powell deliberately wanted to be offensive or hurt anyone. This wasn’t hate speech, which is directed at individuals or a group with the intention of degrading them (though it might unintentionally have that effect). That doesn’t excuse whatever she said (she maintains she said nothing wrong), but it does indicate that the next step should have been sensitivity training, suspension or demotion, not instant unemployment. 

James Gunn made some dumb tweets six to 10 years ago. He thought his jokes about rape and paedophilia were provocative. Clearly, they were, because they have provoked Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn to issue a statement: “The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible…. [They are] inconsistent with our studio's values, and we have severed our business relationship with him.”

Disney’s sentiment seems sincere, but the actual words are problematic. If we start going back through Disney movies in the past, how much blatant sexism, racism and homophobia will we find? Disney would rightfully claim that, though those offenses may have occurred, the company has evolved since then. Which is the same claim Gunn has made regarding his tweets: “I have apologized for humor of mine that hurt people. I truly felt sorry and meant every word of my apologies.” Why does Disney deserve our admiration for changing, but Gunn gets our scorn?

This twitchy trigger finger ready to target anyone who may offend has as much negative consequence as the offensive speech itself. These 11,000 outraged petitioners against Insatiable are calling for the cancellation of a show they haven’t even seen. Hundreds of people could be put out of work because of a trailer that, frankly, they may have misread. Their complaint is that a heavy high school girl who is fat-shamed suddenly loses weight and is hot, then returns to high school to seek revenge on all who taunted her. Obviously, the show has a dark, Heathers-like tone, making fun of those shallow jerks who judged her based on her appearance. No, she doesn’t have to be thin to win; she has to be thin to show the others how superficial they are. I haven’t seen the show either, so it might be horrible. But I won’t fire the show until I’ve seen it.

To walk without making any sounds does not mean we shouldn’t speak up about injustices. Just the opposite: we must shout them into oblivion. We are repairing the damaged rice paper torn by others so future generations can walk it in peace. But the key to this overworked metaphor is that Caine mastered his soundless walk over a period of years. There was a learning curve through which his teachers allowed him time to mature. Each failure did not bring a beating or expulsion from the community.

We need to have a rubric to judge social infractions. What exactly was said or done? In what context? What was the intention? Who was offended or hurt? How badly? How long ago did it happen? Is this a first offense? I, too, want to eliminate offensive speech and actions as quickly as possible. I still believe justice delayed is justice denied. But we need to judge the totality of the person, not just a stray utterance. How many of us would survive under that strict litmus test?

These public firings remind me of the scene in the film The History Boys, in which a British high school history teacher shocks his students by telling them that war memorials aren’t meant to honor the dead as much as to distract us from the real villains: “We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died. And all the mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not lest we forget, but lest we remember. That’s what this is about…the memorials, the Cenotaph, the Two Minutes’ Silence. Because there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” 

We must not let these discordant sounds distract us from the deeper injustices. Companies quick to fire seem more interested in promoting a memorial to their virtue than attacking the systemic problems that would address putting more people of color, women and LGBTQ people behind the camera and in executive positions. In the 1,100 top films from 2007 to 2017, only 4 percent of the directors were female. And even if women do direct a successful film, they are rarely hired to direct another of the same level. Over the same span, only 5.2 percent of the 1,223 directors were black, and 3.2 percent were Asian.

Who should be fired over that offensive fact?