This week, social media has been a veritable cesspool of unsavory. So much so, that I have yearned for the drivel of catdogbaby videos and insta-filtered, cell-phone selfies of vague acquaintances and their latest foam art.
Among so many other things, on Monday, we were treated to news of cele-bro-ty, Jonah Hill’s weekend use of homophobic language aimed at a stalker/tabloid photographer who had been harassing Hill. And, by Tuesday morning, we were treated to a full-on, Tonight Show apology.
Here’s the thing: I’m more than happy to receive Hill’s apology. As far as public apologies go, his is way up there. He takes responsibility, seems contrite, and while explaining the context of his wrongdoing, he doesn’t seem to be justifying his actions. He even goes so far as to name that his intent makes no difference because of the impact of his words.
Great stuff. Pharrell and his publicist might want to take tips here (I’m referencing that star’s recent collusion in cultural appropriation with the racist-euro-fashion-magazine-industrial-complex, followed his non-apology/justification).
But here’s the thing, I can’t accept Hill’s apology for everyone. But what I can do is the thing that I know how to do–to pull up a seat and talk about what more may be going on here in our society at large that creates the conditions in which a person would say the things he said.
Before we get there, I should probably make note of the other half of my title: Open Carry. So far as I know, Jonah Hill hasn’t been involved in any way with open carry. And to some, there may not be an obvious connection between homophobic language and extremist interpretations of the second amendment used to justify bad behavior.
For any who don’t know, there are those who use the guise of confusing a “a well armed militia” with “individual license to carry loaded assault rifles in the baby aisle at Target,” to justify what should legitimately be called an “act of domestic terrorism”–that is, carrying a loaded assault rifle in the baby aisle at Target.
So where’s the connection? Well, I’ll get back to that. But to get there, let’s unpack what was happening with Jonah Hill’s comment to the photographer.
According to reports, after being harassed, Hill retorted to his harasser: “suck my dick, you f****t.”
Hill has since made several versions of his same, fairly well put together apology. Namely, he apologizes to LGBTQ persons for use of the f word, and he says that people being harassed by others should not lash out in harmful ways like he did.
I believe Hill when he says that he has always stood for LGBTQ rights, and loves and respects the LGBTQ people in his life. I believe he is actually sorry.
Frankly, I don’t have the time or energy for second guessing decent apologies, and when it comes to motives, if we’re going to be offended by impact instead of intent, then I feel the responsibility to receive apologies on the same grounds (though, to be clear, our perception of intent ALWAYS frames and shapes how something impacts us).
I also believe that there is much more wrong with the situation than what got covered in Hill’s apology (or in the coverage of Hill’s offense and apology).
First, there’s the un-addressed obvious–the opening phrase preceding Hill’s slur. Or, as I like to put it: you say “suck my dick” like it’s a bad thing.
Actually, this is really all we need to unpack the situation further. The use of the f word seems to be getting all the attention, but like other slurs, it bears absolutely no weight without all the cultural baggage of oppressive treatment that goes along with the word. In language studies, we might talk about the de-notative meaning of a word (in this case, the f word is associated with gay men) and the co-notative meaning associated with a word (in this case, all the reasons we feel like it’s a bad thing rather than a compliment when this word is used to describe gay men).
We can also talk about illocutionary force–that is, no one who reads the story of Hill’s comments has had to pause and wonder if Jonah Hill actually wanted, in that moment, to drop trou’ and have the photographer perform oral sex on him. Though we know that millions of gay and straight couples engage, for pleasure and intimacy, in this very sex act on a daily basis, we don’t assume that’s what Hill wanted.
No, we get that, instead of being a pushy request for sex, the command, “suck my dick” is really intended as a threat against the photographer. It’s a way of borrowing words from a culturally understood vocabulary and using them to make another point that the hearer seems to be missing. In this case, the photographer wouldn’t leave Hill alone, so he used strong words that are backed by cultural violence to respond forcefully to what felt like a boundary violation–in other words, Hill felt angry and his words were meant to indicate that the photographer needed to back off and leave him alone.
That these words work in our society to communicate such an idea is a problem.
We are told so much about our culture when the phrase “suck my dick” is associated with power, dominance, and control, rather than with a male bodied person’s vulnerable request for sexual intimacy with someone else.
And here, we see clearly where the oppression of LGBTIQ persons and the oppression of women intersect in a culture so shaped by a dynamic of domination/violence paired with a paranoid insecurity that must be defended at all costs (see where I’m going here?).
Our tendency to use references to sex acts in a violent way speaks to what some have called our “rape culture”–that is, the normalization of sexual violence against women (as well as children, LGBTIQ persons, people of color, those with disabilities, etc.) that allows males to operate out of presumptive domination and ownership of other people’s bodies.
This shows up not just in violent language, but in blaming women and female bodies for the violence that men do against them “because she wanted it.” It’s the “gay panic” defense when homophobic people are violent “because I thought he was coming on to me.” It’s the failure of police to pursuit the violent sexual assailants of transgender women until videos of the event, which happened on a public subway, are made viral online (and it’s the failure of bystanders to protect the women involved).
This is our “sickness unto death”–our cultural loss of human personhood–and our despair of healthy interpersonal relationship that leads to the masculine defense of power.
But the truth is, we are vulnerable. And to open ourselves up to be seen as vulnerable means to open ourselves up both to harm AND to desirable relationship with each other.
Misogyny and homophobia are symptoms–like open carry–of our insecurity about being vulnerable, finite human beings. People who are at peace with their own vulnerability and who make a practice of treating all people with equal dignity and respect, do not carry assault rifles in the baby aisle at Target. Or at Sonic drive-ins. Or at church.
Jonah Hill reached for misogynist/homophobic language because he, like all of us, is shaped by a culture that has told him it is not okay to be vulnerable as a man. He reached for the tool that we have all collectively honed for just such a defense. His apology is not enough, because the problem is bigger than his use of the tool he was handed.
The problem is our problem. We use hateful, harmful language because we are afraid–afraid of being hated and harmed–afraid of losing our precarious grip on a small bit of control. This same fearfulness drives us to protect our borders, to arm ourselves with guns and oppressive immigration policies, and inaccessible healthcare systems (because someone else getting care will slow my access to care), to regressive drug incarceration laws.
All these things are symptoms of a disease that we need to heal from. And to heal from it, we have to stop defending and start grieving–grieving so that we can move far enough into the mess that we can begin to untangle it and grieving so that we can recover our desire for the intimacy of real relationships that honor all persons so that we all emerge, less bound by our impulse to be driven to violence by our fear.