Washington Post opinion writer Alyssa Rosenburg has a piece up today titled “Kevin Hart’s homophobia caught up with him. Is losing the Oscars enough?” I don’t assume she wrote the headline but that’s a pretty fair summary of the piece itself which argues that Hart’s past statements about homosexuals should cost him more than a lost gig. In fact, the headline softens it a bit by making it a question. Rosenburg asks that question in the piece and then clearly answers it by saying Hart should pay some kind of additional ‘penance’ for his bad tweets:
If Hart thought that telling Rolling Stone in 2015 that “I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals, because we can” was enough to put that phase of his career to rest, he seems to have been disabused of that notion. Saying, as he did Friday, that “I’m sorry that I hurt people.. I am evolving and want to continue to do so. My goal is to bring people together not tear us apart” is closer to the mark.
Is it enough, though? Or is it just a start? The concept of penance may be out of fashion, but that should change, especially at a moment of national reckoning over homophobia, sexual violence and racism. Stepping down from the Oscars may be punishment for Hart, but that censure doesn’t do very much to help people who have, for example, been beaten by relatives because of their perceived sexual orientation.
I’ve written about altruistic punishment before. That’s the tendency that all people have to take pleasure from punishing socially designating villains. There’s a good societal/evolutionary reason for the existence of this tendency (it helps weed out freeloaders and people who aren’t carrying their weight). The problem is that in the modern world social media makes it easy for this natural tendency to create roving mobs looking to inflict punishment on whoever they deem deserves it. That’s how you get #HasJustineLandedYet and other low points in social media history.
Earlier this year I wrote about a woman named Monika Glennon who got in a brief argument with a stranger in the comments section of a local news station. The stranger, a woman named Mollie Rosenblum, responded by creating a false story about Glennon cheating on her husband which she spread online with the help of yet another stranger. The whole sad story is worth a look as an example of the kind of terrible behavior people are capable of once they decide the other person deserves to be punished.
Of course, people are free to decide that Kevin Hart is a terrible person and stop seeing his movies or tune him out entirely. They are free to tell their friends they think he’s a bad guy. But at some point, you do cross a line when your goal is to publicly organize social punishment for someone you don’t know and have never spoken to. That’s what Alyssa Rosenburg seems to be doing with her column in the Post.
To be clear, I’m not trying to do the same to Rosenburg. I don’t know her and I don’t want to see her fired or hounded online over her column (though it would be the height of hypocrisy if she were to complain at this point). I do think this is a problem, one which major publications like the Post ought to think about.