Well, that was quick.
Shortly after he announced he would be hosting the 91st annual Academy Awards, comedian Kevin Hart stepped down after an entirely predictable kerfuffle over homophobic tweets and jokes. Hart’s speedy departure from the position leaves the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences casting about to fill the entertainment industry’s worst job. And the controversy raises a series of questions about how to handle ugly speech that we ask ourselves on a regular basis but rarely take the time to settle before the next outrage arrives.
As is inevitable when someone is tapped for a major role in the entertainment business (or in politics, or in sports, or any venue in public life), Hart’s appointment as Oscars host led to renewed attention to the edgiest parts of his stand-up act and social media feeds. Chief among the flash points is Hart’s pattern of expressing discomfort with gay people. In a 2010 stand-up special, Hart declared that as “a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will.” In a 2011 tweet, he imagined breaking his daughter’s doll house over his son’s head if the boy played with it, as if hitting your children and destroying their toys is some sort of magical deterrent that can determine their future sexual orientation.
Because the Academy is foolish enough to pick someone with these sorts remarks in his repertoire but savvy enough to understand that homophobia isn’t a good look, the organization asked Hart to apologize. He initially refused, on the grounds that he had addressed such “jokes,” if they can be termed that, in the past, particularly in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview. At the time, Hart said that he wouldn’t tell gay jokes again because “When I said it, the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now.” He may have dropped such lines from his act, but Hart apparently didn’t take the time to scrub his Twitter feed before the Academy came calling. Ultimately, Hart reversed course, apologizing and stepping down from the role.
If there’s an upside to this whole mess, it’s that it neatly lays out a number of issues that we really ought to resolve, if only to save ourselves and the public figures of the world a lot of time and energy.
First, is there a statute of limitations on nasty and bigoted speech? It’s true that norms change, and that ideas that are widespread in one decade might seem repugnant in the next.
But even by this standard, Hart still doesn’t have much of a case. He was threatening to beat his child over the boy’s sexual orientation in 2011, 13 years after Matthew Shepard’s murder prompted a national conversation about homophobia; seven years after Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples; two years after “Glee” and “Modern Family” debuted, bringing gay kids and gay families firmly in the mainstream of popular culture; and the same year that director Brett Ratner was pilloried for using an anti-gay slur in an interview and stepped down from producing the Oscars. The times were as sensitive as they are now.
Hart also can’t claim reduced culpability under some sort of juvenile social justice statute. Hart is 39 now, and he turned 31 in 2010 and 32 in 2011. Even by the standards of belated adulthood extended to American men, that ought to be old enough to have a sense of prevailing norms — and to resist the urge to tweak those norms for the simple zing of transgression. Maybe after a certain amount of time has passed, and a certain amount of recompense and proof of maturity has been made, we could forgive, say, the Wisconsin high school students who gave an apparent Nazi salute in a pre-prom photo for their acts of youthful, if hateful, provocation. The standards should be higher for an adult offender such as Hart.
And the truth is, we change our behavior when norms change. It might have been acceptable to name a highway after former Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the 1910s and 1920s, but it’s manifestly not today, which is why the Alexandria City Council voted to rename the road in June. Instead of leaving Confederate statues up, the equivalent of Hart leaving his homophobic tweets intact, we take them down or recontextualize them.
The idea of recompense raises a second, equally important set of questions. What constitutes a proper apology and restitution for hurtful words? And who gets to rule on whether those gestures of contrition are sincere and commensurate to the offense?
It’s fantastical to think that any one person or organization can account for the wounded feelings of an entire community. Even the most thoughtful accounting of a wrong will likely leave someone, somewhere, feeling aggrieved.
But we can probably agree that apologies have to do more than put the blame for ruffled feathers on the people whose plumage is out of whack. If Hart thought that telling Rolling Stone in 2015 that “I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals, because we can” was enough to put that phase of his career to rest, he seems to have been disabused of that notion. Saying, as he did Friday, that “I’m sorry that I hurt people.. I am evolving and want to continue to do so. My goal is to bring people together not tear us apart” is closer to the mark.
Is it enough, though? Or is it just a start? The concept of penance may be out of fashion, but that should change, especially at a moment of national reckoning over homophobia, sexual violence and racism. Stepping down from the Oscars may be punishment for Hart, but that censure doesn’t do very much to help people who have, for example, been beaten by relatives because of their perceived sexual orientation.
After Ratner used that slur, he donated time and work to make public service announcements about the dangers of homophobia. (What he’ll have to do to make it back into public life after being accused of sexual harassment and misconduct is an entirely different question.) It’s natural that people, particularly those who depend on the public’s good opinion to make a living, who say or do nasty things will want to find a way to redeem themselves so they can get back to work. If they’re going to make their way back from the wilderness, the communities they’ve hurt ought to get something out of the process. Being spared the sight of a homophobic jokester at the Academy Awards is rather less than restitution.