There was a time not too long ago that a male executive could squeeze the bottom of a female subordinate and get away with it. It was also not uncommon for people, mostly straight, to use gay people as punchlines or trade in off-color remarks for laughs. Consider Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy special “Delirious,” in which he says he avoids the “faggot section” at his shows and has a nightmare that macho man Mr. T is gay. This is met with uproarious laughter. Today, these comments and acts are rightfully seen not only as out of sync with the times, but sexist and homophobic.
However, not everyone agrees. There’s a sizable chunk of Americans who believe that we have gone too far and that good people are being punished for harmful words or actions made years, even decades ago, when we lived in simpler, different times. On live television, for example, “Today” show host Megyn Kelly fondly recalled a time from her childhood when she could trick-or-treat in blackface without retribution or fear of being called offensive. She was summarily relieved of her hosting duties.
When Harvey Weinstein was accused of serial assault by numerous women, his attorney argued that he was a relic — an “old dinosaur learning new ways,” as she put it. The implication was that he didn’t know any better, and that his age, not his power or views of women, caused him to treat them badly.
Now, Kevin Hart, a stand-up comedian known for his family-friendly humor, has come under fire for homophobic remarks (sample: “Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay' ") he made several years ago on Twitter. The Hollywood Reporter also surfaced the fact that Hart did a routine in 2011 about his 3-year-old son having a “gay moment” and how he needed to “nip it in the bud.” These comments have cost him “the opportunity of a lifetime”: the chance to host next year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
Lying in bed in a sea of plush white linens, looking dejected, Hart filmed himself lamenting those who chose to focus on his words from long ago and who refused to let him evolve. “If u want to search my history or past and anger yourselves with what u find that is fine with me,” he posted on Instagram. “I’m almost 40 years old and I’m in love with the man that I am becoming.” He added in his video: “I swear, man, our world is becoming beyond crazy. I’m not going to let the craziness frustrate me or anger me, especially when I worked hard to get to the mental space that I am at now.”
But Hart’s solemn indignation is a trick meant to cause us to question our moral compass and to empathize with him, the person being called to account. It is straight out of a now-familiar playbook used by powerful wrongdoers to fashion themselves as the victim and to whip up public support and empathy.
We witnessed something similar when Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose lost their jobs for treating women badly. While they publicly admitted fault, they also engaged in double talk, blaming their behavior on misunderstandings or the fact that they believed the encounters to be consensual. “I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate,” Rose said in a statement. “I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken.” So he was sorry and accepted responsibility, except that the accusations against him weren’t true, and even if they were true, they were based on a misunderstanding. Lauer was similarly twisty in his response to allegations against him, “fully” acknowledging that he “acted inappropriately” but making clear that most of the allegations “are absolutely false.” His months of silence on the matter, he said, was “to protect my family.”
Were these petty misunderstandings enough to curtail a career or ruin a life? Let’s be reasonable.
The confirmation hearings for Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh are another example. At the time of the hearings, President Trump proclaimed that it was a scary time to be a young man in America, “where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.” Kavanaugh, Trump said, was being treated unfairly. We were asked to consider all that Kavanaugh would lose as a result of Christine Blasey Ford’s claim of sexual assault. He, not she, was the victim. His family, his reputation and his ascent to the Supreme Court were on the line.
Similarly, those who have called Hart to account have cut short his dreams of hosting the Oscars, and he may now be forever labeled a homophobe. What future opportunities might he lose because of this “witch hunt”? The answer is: Who cares? He like, many famous men who have gotten into trouble for offenses ranging from clueless remarks to criminal accusations, will be just fine. Kavanaugh now sits on the Supreme Court. Rose’s fans are begging for his return to television, which might in fact happen. The people we should be most concerned about are those who read Hart’s remarks regarding the potential sexual orientation of his son and believe that it’s not okay to be gay, or the young woman who dreams of success but dreads a workplace that doesn’t see her as an equal.
We have a duty and moral obligation to protect and defend the most vulnerable among us. When those in positions of power commit acts or use words that are racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or sexist, they must be held accountable. When they are not, and given platforms on the national stage, the message it sends to those with the least amount of power in society is that who they are doesn’t matter and neither do their lives or experiences.
The show will go on, without Kevin Hart. It will hurt only the person who made these ugly jokes in the first place — but probably not for long.