There was an extraordinary confluence in space-time this week. Zadie Smith, brilliant author of White Teeth, published a short story about James Gunn being fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 days before the event happened. Smith, like all geniuses, must be tapped into the workings of the universe, and as such her story “Now More Than Ever” foretold what happened to Gunn.
Of course it’s not ABOUT James Gunn, but it’s close. In Smith’s story an unnamed academic lives in an apartment building where, every day, the other academics gather at the windows and point big black arrows at their colleagues who they feel have stepped out of line, intellectually. The ones who have said or believe things that are ‘beyond the pale.’ The academic doesn’t want to take part, but she has to, otherwise all those arrows will end up pointing her way.
She is friends with a student named Scout, and Scout is a blazing champion of the system of social destruction that keeps all thought within tightly defined parameters. But more than that, Scout believes that there is no past. The past is alive now, and the you of the past is indistinguishable from the you of today.
“Scout’s demonstration was quite detailed—I don’t want to get into it all here—but the essence of it was: consistency. You’ve got to reach far, far back, she explained, into the past… and you’ve got to make sure that when you reach back thusly you still understand everything back there in the exact manner in which you understand things presently. For if it should turn out that you don’t—that is, if, after some digging, someone finds evidence that present-you is fatally out of step with past-you—well, then, you’ll simply have to find some way to remake the connection, and you’ve got to make it seamless.”
Your opinions and statements of the past MUST line up with the mores and values of today, otherwise you are fucked. Some people don’t agree, and they, of course, get the big black arrows pointed their way. One such person is a professor named Eastman.
“How Eastman still has a job we really don’t know. Not only does he not believe the past is the present, but he has gone further and argued that the present, in the future, will be just as crazy-looking to us, in the present, as the past is, presently, to us, right now! For Eastman, surely, it’s only a matter of time.”
James Gunn made the fatal mistake of not having his past self aligned with his present self. There’s more to it than that – this whole clusterfuck is an indictment of every level of our culture wars, from the sickness of social media to the bad faith actors of the right wing to the zero tolerance callout culture of the left – but this is an underlying piece of the whole thing.
James Gunn made bad jokes that some find offensive, and he changed from that person, but it turns out you can’t change. Past you is attached eternally to present you, and you do not have the luxury of growth. You do not get to become better. If you were ever bad, you will always be bad.
This isn’t new to the Gunn situation. It’s a standard fact of how we live our lives. You have done it and you have had it happen to you. You’ve run into someone from high school, someone who hasn’t seen you in ten or twenty years, and you’ve experienced them looking at you only through the prism of who you were back then. They don’t have the context of your last decade or two, so they only see the dumb idiot you used to be, not the dumb idiot you’ve grown to become. This is the premise of Oldboy.
But you know you’re different. You look back at yourself ten years ago and see a stranger. You look back at yourself five years ago and see some sort of transitional form, the Missing Link between you of today and the dumb idiot you once were. You look back at yourself a year ago and you see someone you might recognize on the street, but who just simply isn’t the same person you are today.
The thing is that we change in ways that we ourselves don’t notice. Your own gradual mutation happens right under your nose, but it’s so gradual that you just assume this is how you’ve always been. It isn’t until you’re confronted with your past that you can see how you’ve changed. And for many of us, that change is unconscious (and often not positive. So many people in their middle age bemoan the traits they think they’ve lost, and spend so little time celebrating the wisdom and strength they’ve gained).
Anyway, the truth is that we all change, all the time. Constantly. Minute to minute. But we don’t extend the luxury of that change to others – we lock them in prisons of our own understanding, demanding that they remain the person we once knew. So when the tables are turned and you run into that guy from your high school homeroom you still see him as the 17 year old putz, not as the 37 year old who is actually very different than the person you knew.
There’s more to this – we do have a tendency to revert when we’re confronted with a gaze that sees us as our old selves, we fall back into outdated patterns, and the new selves we have are still built on the foundation of our old selves – but I want to move away from the kind of gradual, unguided change that we all experience to something closer to what happened to James Gunn.
So a decade ago James Gunn was a guy who liked shock humor. He wanted reactions, and was happy to get negative reactions. But over time he saw that this didn’t work for him, and he began exploring other ways. He decided that pushing people away wasn’t satisfying, and he worked on pulling people in towards him. He’s been very vocal about this, and he has said again and again that the foul-mouthed, intimacy-fearing, angry Rocket Raccoon is the Guardian who most resembles himself. Look at Rocket’s journey as someone who pushes people away and uses nasty humor as a weapon and see how he has begun to find family and love with the Guardians, and you see the journey James Gunn has been on. Sadly, we won’t get to see the finale of that journey represented properly in Guardians 3 because Gunn was fired.
Gunn has been on a purposeful journey of self-realization. He has addressed his old self – both directly and in his art – and has attempted to make a new self. And yet the old self hangs around his neck like a millstone, at least in the minds of the public. I’ve seen too many bad takes on Twitter that boil down to “James Gunn should have been fired for these tweets, but it’s bad that the alt-right got their way.”
No, James Gunn shouldn’t have been fired for these tweets, because the James Gunn who works for Disney didn’t make those tweets. But people can’t see the difference, and it’s because we do not allow others to change. We say we want it, but we don’t allow it.
In the case of someone like Gunn, who has made their own change the subject of discussion, we don’t allow it for one big reason: it forces us to confront why we haven’t changed in the ways we want to have changed. We got older, fatter, balder, more bitter, but we didn’t become better. If James Gunn can improve himself… why haven’t we?
So we reject the notion implicitly. We decide that linear time is bullshit, and that the James Gunn of today is fundamentally indistinguishable from the James Gunn of seven, eight, ten years ago. The only reason James Gunn hasn’t changed is because we need him to have not changed so that we have a reason for maintaining all of our negative, unskillful ways of being.
The reality is that we all can do it – there’s nothing inherently special about James Gunn, nothing that he gets from his wealth that sets him apart from the rest of us. We all have the tools and ability to change, we just simply haven’t done the work. And rather than do the work we would like to say the work is impossible.
I used to look at really fit people and say “I would give anything to look like that,” except that I wouldn’t give anything. I wouldn’t give the time and discipline required to look like that. I couldn’t deny that these people looked like that – I was seeing it with my own eyes – but internal change is easier to wave off. And so rather than say “I would give anything to change the way James Gunn has changed, to become more open and compassionate, to repudiate the ways I used to think and to seek new patterns,” without actually being willing to do the work, we simply say the work cannot be done. James Gunn couldn’t have changed, because you can’t change. And that, you see, is why we haven’t changed. It isn’t because we’re unwilling – we would be so willing! – but it’s because nobody changes.
I know this because I have felt this. I have seen people change and I have scoffed. “They’re full of shit,” I would say. Or “They’re fooling themselves and they’ll revert to their old ways soon enough.” (I also had this attitude about the fit people I envied – “They’ll get fat eventually!” “They’re going to die anyway!”). I scoffed because I needed that defense mechanism in order to avoid examining the reasons why I wasn’t making any effort. I needed to be off the hook – it wasn’t my fault I was fucked up.
I think the James Gunn thing is easy – it’s pretty clear that he was destroyed by a conspiracy of bad faith actors. But I also think about Mark Wahlberg a lot in this scenario. When he was a teen, Wahlberg was involved in a hate crime against a Vietnamese man. This incident earned him a felony conviction. Wahlberg’s journey since then has been, like any person’s journey, not a straight line, but in 2016 he met with the man and apologized for the beating. I don’t particularly like Wahlberg’s politics, and I’ve heard he kind of sucks to work with, but none of that has to do with the fact that he beat this man thirty years ago. To think that the Mark Wahlberg of 2018 is the same Wahlberg of 1988 is crazy. Do I think he’s still a racist? Maybe! I don’t know, but I’m not going to judge him based on what he was like when Ronald Reagan was president. I’ll judge him by how he behaves today (and, to be honest, I’m trying to stop judging people altogether). And I don’t need him to be some kind of perfect saint today, either.
That’s a harder one, because Wahlberg’s old crimes are very serious. But they’re the work of a teenage boy in 1988. It’s fundamentally unfair to keep that teenage boy alive in 2018. Somehow we understand this in the abstract – many people who will bring up Wahlberg’s 1988 behavior believe that abstract convicted felons should be allowed to vote, have good jobs, reintegrate into society – but we lose it when we deal with people one-on-one.
The fundamental question raised by Zadie Smith’s story is what the point of those black arrows are, anyway. Is pointing out the bad thinkers and their bad thoughts a way of making things better or is it a way of insulating yourself against the black arrows? If we don’t leave room for people to grow, what’s even the point of getting woke and trying to make a change? Why not just start digging big ditches and lining people up for firing squads if we believe change is impossible?
And if the point isn’t to spur change, Smith says, we’re going to find ourselves on the receiving end of those black arrows. In the end you’ll get canceled too, because unless you’re a perfected being today, your behavior, thoughts and statements will, at some point in the surprisingly near future, be considered ‘beyond the pale.’ The world progresses and changes, and we need to give one another the space to do the same.
It’s worth noting how self-serving this all can seem. I am someone who has harmed people in the past, and I do not feel that the Devin Faraci of 2018 is the Devin Faraci of 2003. But I also understand that I can’t just say that I’ve changed/am changing and expect people to lap it up and be happy about it. I have to live differently. I think James Gunn has lived differently. I think even Mark Wahlberg has lived differently.
What’s more, as someone who has harmed others, it is inspiring for me to see people who have changed themselves. This is part of the growth in my own thinking – I used to love artists who were jerks because I was a jerk. But now I love artists who are working really hard to not be jerks, and I love their occasional failures. I look to them for reassurance that the work CAN be done, and that the work doesn’t have an endless upwards trajectory – that there are setbacks as well. But change is possible, and we can all do it. And we don’t need to point the big black arrows at one another, we don’t need to cancel one another, we just need to help each other learn to grow, and give one another the space to make it happen.
The past informs the present, but it isn’t the present. We should learn from it, not carry it around like Jacob Marley with his spectral chains. We shouldn’t forget it, but we don’t have to keep it artificially alive either.