We Can Forgive Our Favorite Characters for Saying Awful Things. Why Can’t We Forgive the Same Behavior in Reality?

maxresdefaultA few months ago, Kevin Hart became the latest celebrity to have a series of very old social media posts come back to haunt him, as several homophobic tweets from 2011 forced him to step down from hosting the 2019 Oscars. Hart responded by issuing a confusing and arrogant non-apology where he called out our culture for being too sensitive (an excuse that turns out to not be exclusive bitter white male Trump supporters), and also stated:

“I just got a call from the Academy…they said ‘Kevin, apologize for your tweets of old or  we’re going to move on and find another host…I chose to pass. I passed on the apology.”

Hart later tacked on a half assed apology to the LGBT community, but it was too little, and way too late. He was persona non gratta, at least up until yesterday, when he was interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres ostensibly to promote his new movie, The Upside; however, America’s most well known openly gay celebrity wasn’t afraid to confront him about his statements, forcing Hart to issue his most sincere and self reflective apology to date. Whether he meant it or appearing on Ellen was just a PR move, it worked: the Oscars have re-opened the possibility of Hart hosting, and

What Kevin Hart said was wrong; even in 2011, the attitudes towards the gay community had already been rapidly progressive and stating that he’d beat his son if he were gay is horrifying. Hart deserves the consequences he’s facing, not just for what he said, but for the arrogance with which he approached his response.

Before Hart, we had Guardians of the Galaxy franchise director James Gunn get fired from helming future installments for a series of posts in 2009 in which he made off-color tweets about child molestation that were apparently intended to be funny, although not a single one had a discernible punchline. Gunn’s tweets were disgusting, but unlike Hart, he approached the issue with a sincere apology and acknowledgement of how his words were offensive. Gunn was still fired.

In the days before social media, we had Mel Gibson’s infamous homophobic and racist rants against the Jewish, LGBT and African American communities. Gibson became persona non grata for nearly 10 years and still bears the mark of Cain from his actions. However, even Gibson did his damndest to rehab his image by meeting with members of these various communities and tried to gain an understanding of how his actions and words were so hurtful.

I’ve been watching The Office a lot lately – a bizarre segue, I know, but hear me out. These days, Michael Scott is a beloved icon whose progression from insensitive jackass to good friend and father figure to his employees is seen as one of the best instances of character development in any sitcom. I love Michael Scott, too, but let me remind you all something: Michael was a fucking jackass until about the end of Season 4. He made comments that were racist, homophobic, fat shaming, and sexist. The ‘Diversity Day’ episode alone would have been reason for Michael to never land another job had he existed in our objective reality. At the end of day, Michael really just went from a hopelessly clueless, offensive idiot to a far more self aware but still slightly clueless and offensive idiot.

Now, Michael Scott was not a hateful bigot. He was just ignorant and wanted to be liked. It’s well established that he loves standup comedy, and it can be argued that he approaches his jokes with the same intent as Mel Brooks or Don Rickles – to point out how absurd prejudice is and that we all need to laugh at ourselves. Of course, Michael doesn’t have the edge or intelligence of either those characters, as his “jokes” lack a punchline and dive right into the puddles of ignorance. Still, if someone in the office called Oscar a f***ot or Stanley or Darryl the n-word, he’d likely recognize why those words are wrong and defend his employees is his own ridiculous ways (that actually would’ve been an interesting episode – how Michael would confront actual prejudice in the office).

Going back further, there’s maybe television’s most famous example of the loveable social ignoramus, Archie Bunker. Of course, Archie was deftly written and portrayed, to the point where we all knew we were supposed to be laughing at him and not with him. Still, Archie ultimately was a protagonist, who learned to love and respect those who were different than him, albeit begrudgingly.

So, if we can forgive our fictional characters, why do we find it so hard to forgive real life figures? Is it because there is a controlled narrative where the creators can dictate their redemption in exactly the right way? Do we just find it easier because they are not real? I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a repentance process – they do need to really show that they’re sorry. And there are some transgressions that are unforgivable (Weinstein, Cosby, etc.) But we are so quick to demonize for an indefinite period of time that we lose sight of the fact that a person can evolve and realize their errors. A few months ago, Samantha Bee interviewed former neo-Nazi’s who committed to changing their lives around and advocating against white supremacy. The social media outpouring was largely positive, as many were genuinely moved by the segment, including myself. Still, why can we forgive people who at one point openly advocated violence towards minorities and may have even committed such violence themselves, but we struggle to forgive mere words stemming from immaturity and lack of experience and self-awareness?

I’m not trying to speak for the gay community on this issue; their anger is valid and there have been far more eloquent points made about why Hart should continue to face a certain level of scorn. I’m genuinely curious as to why we seem to have a double standard when it comes to fiction vs. reality, and if the endless news cycle of revealed transgressions of beloved figures guilty of far worse has made us cautious in that if we forgive people for mere words, they feel they can get away with worse.

I wish I knew the answer.

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