There's a famous quote, attributed to many people, that goes something like this: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
That may have been true before the internet existed, but it’s 2018 and people will never forget what you said, especially if you Tweet it. The transcripts of your worst moments will follow you around forever.
In the last month, a director of a billion-dollar movie franchise and a Major League Baseball player found themselves in hot water over things they wrote on Twitter nearly a decade ago.
James Gunn, the 51-year-old director of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and its sequel, made vile jokes about rape and pedophilia. Always eccentric, Gunn and his defenders said these jokes, made long before Gunn was hired by Disney, came from an artist who was always looking to break boundaries and shock his (then much smaller) audience.
Josh Hader, a rising star relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, was just a teen when he made his career-altering gaffes. He used racial slurs in quoting song lyrics and made homophobic statements that probably seemed funny to him and his friends at the time, but are much less funny now that he’s an adult with a lot to lose.
Gunn was immediately fired by Disney while Hader was ordered by the MLB to undergo sensitivity training. I’m also willing to bet that neither will ever Tweet again unless under a pseudonym. But, even that’s not wise. Just ask Kevin Durant and Bryan Colangelo.
Despite these two high-profile learning lessons, it was revealed last Sunday that Sean Newcomb, a 25-year-old pitcher with the Atlanta Braves, also used many of the same slurs in his six- and seven-year-old Tweets that Hader did. Instead of celebrating the greatest pitching performance of his young career, Newcomb spent his afternoon fielding questions about his past mistakes.
As an avid consumer of sports media, I couldn’t help but notice the conversation had changed the following Monday morning. Newcomb was surely criticized for his transgressions, but there was more commentary about the medium in which Newcomb, Hader and Gunn all used to make their remarks, rather than about the remarks themselves.
These commentators were flabbergasted by how stupid Newcomb was for not completely scrubbing his Twitter account after Hader’s old posts were discovered. He was being shamed more for getting caught than he was for committing the crime.
Something different also happened that Monday. The cast of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” of which there was a third installment planned with Gunn at the helm, released a statement of support and requested Disney rethink its decision to fire the famed director.
Maybe it’s fatigue or maybe it’s fear, but there is a clear shift happening in how people react to these stories.
The fear, of course, having something to do with the old adage about throwing stones in glass houses. Everyone who had a Twitter account going back five years or more was probably sweating bullets. Rian Johnson, director of the most recent Star Wars film, deleted more than 20,000 Tweets after Gunn was fired, commenting, “I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted anything that bad. But, it’s nine years of stuff written largely off the cuff as ephemera. If trolls scrutinizing it for ammunition is the new normal, this seems like a ‘why not?’ move.”
Indeed, comments made on the internet rarely have great shelf lives. We’ve changed as a society, sometimes for the better, over the last decade. We have a better understanding now how hurtful words can be and tend to be more cognizant of how we describe things.
Social media has given voices to people who never would have had one, which can be viewed as a good thing. But, because most of us only know each other as avatars with character limits, it’s forced us to place emphasis on words over actions. We don’t know how James Gunn, Josh Hader and Sean Newcomb act, but we can sure as heck see what they write.
But words are not actions, and regulating morality is a very slippery slope. Where is the line? Is there one? What do we do to someone who crosses it? Does it depend on how successful they are? The sad truth is all of these organizations perform a cost-benefit analysis before making moral stands. Disney didn’t want to be associated with Gunn because it didn’t have to be. Another director can take over the franchise and it will still be a smash hit. The Brewers, on the other hand, didn’t suspend or release Hader because he’s their best relief pitcher and they need him to win.
According to reports, there are 335 million active Twitter users. In a misguided search for validation, we want as many of those 335 million strangers to agree with what we say as possible in the forms of “likes” and “retweets.” Piling on current events with more of the same jokes and comments is the easiest way to achieve this. So, when it comes to these type of stories, mob rule always wins out.
The easiest way to avoid the mob, of course, is to just stay inside. With so many careers being lost, that’s what a lot of people will begin to do. We’re seeing what our society does to anyone who dares to have a personality.
We’re losing the ability to understand nuance. We can no longer differentiate between speeding and murder. We judge people on their worst moments without realizing that good people can do bad things. People can change and have their jagged edges smoothed out over time. Words matter, but actions matter more. Perfection is unattainable, yet we demand it.
By most accounts, Gunn, Hader and Newcomb are not bad people. They had undeniable lapses in judgment and regret what they said. However, an apology is no longer enough for most people. We seem to prefer the death penalty over rehabilitation. We’ve become insatiable. We demand someone’s head every time a mistake is made.
Though their words were rightfully condemned, we must not forget that there were no crimes committed and there were no victims. Words are only as powerful as we make them. Conversely, you can be very good with words while being a terror of a human being. Most baseball fans reading this column, for example, have athletes playing for their favorite team who were accused of domestic abuse. Maybe they’d be in more trouble had they shared offensive memes instead.
By allowing people to be defined by their past words, we’re preventing them from growing into a better person whose actions may positively affect hundreds, thousands or millions of people. I often wonder about the long-term ramifications of this scrutiny. Will artists be afraid to explore knowing that their stumbles will follow them around forever? Will great thinkers keep their thoughts to themselves? Will we all become robots reciting phrases pieced together from a list of acceptable words?
Many are learning that the only surefire way to not give the mob ammunition is to show no personality at all. As the editor of a small-town newspaper, even I have become a bit robotic in my face-to-face, phone and email interactions because you never know who’s recording you or will screenshot what you send.
Then again, a reader called my boss the other day and criticized me for having no personality. There’s just something so irresistible about pointing out someone else’s faults, isn’t there?
Maybe it's time to update that famous quote to something like this: “I’ve learned that people will forget how you made them feel, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget the offensive thing you mindlessly Tweeted that one time while you were bored and waiting for your sandwich to be made at the deli.”