Actor Gary Oldman has become the latest celebrity to go through the cycle of offense and apology after an interview he gave to Playboy, which contains a rather poorly articulated defense of Alec Baldwin and Mel Gibson after their nasty, bias-tinged public outbursts. There were a number of remarks in the article that might have prompted an interest group to try to obtain contrition from Oldman — on behalf of all fans of the science fiction film “The Fifth Element,” I am grieved by Oldman’s disdain for his own work in that project — but he ended up expressing remorse for suggesting that Jews run Hollywood.
I have witnessed enough of these kerfuffles that it is hard for me to think of the dustup as much more than a ritual in which a celebrity tries to demonstrate some edge and an interest group (in this case, the Anti-Defamation League) gets to demonstrate its power. That Gary Oldman is grumbly about the reaction to the behavior of several of his fellow actors mostly serves to remind us that Gary Oldman is of a certain age.
The one thing I do find interesting about this section of Oldman’s remarks (which are the least interesting part of an otherwise quite good interview) is not the fact of his defense of Baldwin and Gibson, but the reasoning behind it. Namely, Oldman thinks that racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia are fairly common.
“I don’t know about Mel. He got drunk and said a few things, but we’ve all said those things,” Oldman said. “We’re all f—- hypocrites. That’s what I think about it. The policeman who arrested him has never used the word n—- or that f—- Jew? I’m being brutally honest here. It’s the hypocrisy of it that drives me crazy. Or maybe I should strike that and say ‘the N word’ and ‘the F word,’ though there are two F words now . . . We all hide and try to be so politically correct. That’s what gets me. It’s just the sheer hypocrisy of everyone, that we all stand on this thing going, ‘Isn’t that shocking?’”
He is not necessarily wrong, though the norms around language are shifting rapidly. A 2013 poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in conjunction with MTV, which looked at online behavior by young people, found that “More than half of young users of YouTube, Facebook and gaming communities such as Xbox Live and Steam say they sometimes or often encounter biased messages.”
But there are some differences between this data and what Oldman suggested might be true. The survey respondents said that those messages often struck them as an attempt to be transgressive or amusing, rather than as expressions of animus or momentary expressions of extreme anger, as was the case in Baldwin and Gibson’s outbursts. And they see a difference between online communication, where slurs are common, and face-to-face interactions, where they see such language as less acceptable, also a contrast with the scenarios Oldman was describing.
And while young people share Oldman’s belief that such expressions are common, the way they think about slurs seems to be changing. In 2011, 44 percent of survey respondents said such language would make them “very or extremely offended”; that figure rose to 52 percent by 2013.
If you are worried about the biases and distrust you grew up with, I suppose it might be comforting to believe that other people share them. There is a reasonable case to be made that a slip-up of temper or maturity (neither of which really describe Baldwin’s repeated outbursts or Gibson’s drunken rants and domestic violence) should not ruin someone’s reputation forever. Brett Ratner’s substantive engagement with gay rights organizations after making some stupid homophobic jokes is certainly more useful to him and to the people he offended that Oldman’s apology today.
But there is a difference between thinking that because something is common it should be excused, and thinking that because something is common it is cause for improvement. If Oldman believes the former, he may find himself increasingly in the minority on more than one count.