Online outrage: Examining trend of celebrity Twitter scandals in wake of Kevin Hart

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2018 has been the year of Twitter backlash. From Roseanne Barr to James Gunn to Dan Harmon to Sarah Jeong and now to Kevin Hart, Twitter has proven to be the catalyst for many celebrity controversies. Each case, of course, is different and has its own arguments and defenses. But as the recent controversy surrounding Kevin Hart and his old tweets has shown us, Twitter has become a weapon for mob justice, whether we like it or not.

Shortly after Hart was announced as the host of the 91st Academy Awards, some of Hart’s old tweets resurfaced, many of them crass, homophobic jokes. The internet unleashed a wave of furious backlash, resulting in a call for his termination as host of this year’s Academy Awards. In response, Hart defended himself in a video on Instagram, saying that he has grown and evolved past these tweets.

The academy then issued an ultimatum: Apologize, or lose the hosting job. In another video, Hart maintained that who he was then is not who he is now and that he chooses “to pass on the apology” because he has already addressed it in the past. But less than two hours later, with the internet still incensed, Hart announced he was stepping down from the hosting gig and wrote an official apology to the LGBTQ+ community for his “insensitive words from (his) past.”

With this disjointed conclusion to a chaotic Twitter scandal, it is important to address how these issues have been handled recently — and ask ourselves whether that is indeed the appropriate reaction.

Yes, those jokes were tasteless, offensive and unacceptable. Hart should not have hesitated to give an explicit apology to the LGBTQ+ community instead of avoiding the blame. And he certainly should be held accountable for his words, no matter how long ago he said them — especially considering the size of his platform.

But Hart’s argument, that he has grown past what he wrote seven years ago and should not be policed for it now, should not be so quickly dismissed.

The power of social media is a double-edged sword. What has helped propel the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements into the national campaigns they are today has also become a powerful, unbridled weapon. The internet has always been a place where dissenting voices make their case, but the prevalence of social media has given unchecked power to the court of digital opinion. With online platforms creating cyber spaces to bolster shared sentiments, the mob mentality has been contagious and scarily effective.

A few months ago, in a case eerily parallel to Hart’s, “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn was promptly fired from the Marvel franchise after numerous old tweets of crass jokes on subjects ranging from rape to child molestation were brought to the attention of the internet. Like Hart’s, Gunn’s jokes were despicable, disturbing and offensive. There is no defense for that. Yet the tweets were also about a decade old, and in Gunn’s apology, which he was quick to give, he stated that he was “very, very different” than he was back then. But the damage was already done, and Disney permanently severed its relationship with the director.

Most people have made tasteless jokes in their lives. As we grow and mature, we learn from those mistakes and become more well-rounded and sensitive. The issue is that, while we can simply forget the problematic jokes we may have vocalized in the past, Twitter documents them, creating a phenomenon in which the virtual world doesn’t let anything go and doesn’t move on.

While these men should be held accountable, it is difficult to hold past words to the standards of today’s climate. If we were to call out every problematic joke or message in past popular culture and demand consequences for it today, the list would never end. Our society a decade ago was not as culturally conscious as it is today. You only have to look to the “Diversity Day” episode from “The Office,” in which Michael Scott is overtly racist, or the “Sex and the City” episode “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl…,” in which Carrie doesn’t believe bisexuality exists. These episodes were not called out for their narrow points of view when they aired, but they would also not hold up if aired today. But we are not calling for Steve Carell or Sarah Jessica Parker to be #cancelled because as an audience today, we understand that the social climate was different when these episodes were written.

Were these men wrong in their tweets? Absolutely. Should they be asked to apologize? Of course. Should they be facing career-changing consequences for their lewd jokes made many years ago — when society’s views on these issues were different? No.

It is indeed the public’s responsibility to hold public figures accountable for problematic actions. But we need to be holding them accountable for their actions today — not their 10-year-old comments made in a completely different environment. We’ve come a long way as a society in terms of valuing political correctness, and we are still learning how to respect unique backgrounds and identities. We need to allot celebrities the opportunity to have that same learning curve; it is unfair to hold them to a standard so far above the one we set for the average person.

It’s also worth noting that while celebrities are being taken down by Twitter for offensive comments, other problematic figures are still being praised in the entertainment industry. Casey Affleck has had a sexual harassment lawsuit and infliction of emotional distress lawsuit brought against him. A sexual assault allegation against Kobe Bryant went to trial, with the case being dropped after the victim refused to testify. And yet, Bryant won an Academy Award for best animated short at the 2018 Oscars and Affleck is continuing to star in critically acclaimed films.

While the intention was grounded in validity, Hart’s responses to his controversy were poorly executed. His refusal to apologize came across as a refusal to acknowledge the homophobia behind the jokes he had made. He should have been more explicit, especially considering that his prior acknowledgements of the jokes also border on justification rather than remorse. But he brings up a good point that with the current outrage culture, it feels as if the internet is not letting people evolve past their mistakes.

It’s important to hold people accountable for their words, but it is also important to allow people to learn from their mistakes and grow instead of condemning them. The internet has an opportunity to encourage and teach people about the effect of their actions — and that’s what it needs to start doing.

Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].