Yesterday the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel was suspended a month without pay for retweeting a tasteless joke. It strikes me as almost a parody of the absurd hypersensitivity and retributive culture that rules in media right now, and makes me grateful once again that I don’t take a salary in that business. Weigel might have avoided punishment, but the issue was pursued with almost comical tenacity by WaPo’s Felicia Somnez, who spent hour after hour on Twitter prosecuting the case against her coworker. I can’t imagine being motivated by a desire to discipline others that way, but then I’m not the kind of person to make it onto the masthead at the august Washington Post.
The term “cancel culture” comes pre-mocked these days, mostly by white men who want to ensure that they’re perceived to be the right kind of white men. (Also the people who mock the idea that canceling is a problem are almost always people who lie awake at night in fear of being canceled themselves.) But whether you want to call it cancel culture or not, it’s indisputable that we live in a public condition now where people live in constant fear of facing immense professional and social consequences for minor offenses. To retweet a dumb joke (not even to write one, but to share one!) and lose your salary for a month is an absurd overreaction. You don’t want to call it cancel culture, Michael Hobbes, fine. That condition, the condition where someone like Weigel can make such a minor offense and face severe professional and financial consequences, is unhealthy, ultimately unsustainable, and contrary to justice. More importantly for me, it’s incompatible with a basic ethic of forgiveness. I’m against that state of affairs, and if you want to mock me as an anti-woke bro, fine by me.
On Monday I laid out my case that the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial has potentially dark consequences for free speech, and voiced my objection to the verdict on those grounds. But I also want to point out that Amber Heard has been canceled, publicly shamed, in addition to being on the wrong end of that verdict. And I would hope people could take a moment and grapple with what this means - not in terms of culture war, or feminism, or even civil liberties, but simply from the point of view that Amber Heard is a human being who has clearly suffered and is now facing immense public backlash in an industry where public perception is everything. I encourage all of you who oppose cancel culture to ask yourself whether we should be concerned about this situation.
Let’s stipulate, simply for ease of analysis, that Heard behaved inappropriately in publishing the supposedly-defamatory essay in question and in her statements since then. Even then, do you think she should face the professional death penalty for these failings? Many people are suggesting that Heard will or should never receive high-profile work in Hollywood again. (Please don’t give me the “no one is saying” routine here. Social media is filled with the sentiment that Heard should never work again. And there’s been plenty of analysis that’s suggested that her career is mortally wounded.) Well, folks, guess what: that sure looks like canceling to me. It’s the application of intense public social pressure to harm the life of a disfavored person who is perceived to have done something wrong. Heard was not charged with any crime; she was sued in civil court over the veracity of some (very vague and general) statements about physical abuse in an essay. That the court found in her favor does not even necessarily make her a liar, and it’s never been remotely proven to my satisfaction that she actively believed the things she said in that essay to be untrue. Yes, there are caricatures of Heard as a mustache-twirling villain all over social media right now, but I think you can be sympathetic to Johnny Depp’s side of the case and still see Heard as someone who was sharing what seemed to her to be the essential truth of her situation.
An ethic of forgiveness and sympathy for those who have screwed up is of course not limitless. I’m not sitting around waiting for Harvey Weinstein to get another chance. But if we’re truly opposed to the endless hunt for heretics that has gripped our popular culture, we should have a generous definition of who we should consider forgiving. With the exception of those who have committed serious crimes or otherwise deliberately hurt others in a malicious way, I think we should err on the side of equanimity and a refusal to judge. Someone responded to Monday’s piece by saying that I lack credibility to speak on issues of defamation, as I have defamed someone in the past. Perhaps that’s so. And it is definitely true that I want a more forgiving and compassionate social culture because I know I’m a sinner who needs forgiveness personally. But I also know that all of us are, that the only people who haven’t yet been taken to task for their crimes are those whose crimes are yet undiscovered. I also know that every major religion and moral philosophy you can name contains an injunction against self-righteousness and sitting in judgment of others; none of us have the credibility needed to make those judgments. Vengeance is the lord’s alone for a reason, and we all have it coming.
You don’t have to like Amber Heard. You don’t have to buy tickets to any new movie she might appear in. But I think that it’s impossible to simultaneously oppose canceling or cancel culture or whatever and wish for her career to be permanently ruined. Canceling has become such a culture war-laden topic that it’s almost impossible to consider it outside of those terms, but I want to advocate for an emotional perspective instead. I think we need more sympathy, less judgment, more forgiveness, less quickness to condemn, more moral humility. And I can’t imagine accepting that ethos while still condemning Heard to the degree that she’s being condemned online. Even if you think she’s in the wrong - especially if you think she’s in the wrong - you should want better for her than she’s receiving right now.
For now I’m left to shake my head as the ironies pile up.
It always amazes me that those on social media who want to deplatform/ban/fire their opponents are usually the same people who argue for a more forgiving, reform-orientated criminal justice system. Forgiveness for more serious, violent crimes but no mercy for disagreeing with them or tweeting something controversial. Do they not feel even the tiniest bit hypocritical?
I don't agree with canceling her but there are too many people weighing in on this, judging the general public who have been ignored and forgotten by the high-minded media, without ever having watched the trial. Or looked at all of the evidence. When you do that you understand exactly what she has done. It isn't about just the op-ed. There is a timeline. What she has done is not just exploit the Me Too movement - fine - I don't particularly care. What I care about is the systematic abuse by her towards Depp that is being ignored. The wrath against Heard is about THAT. This is why people who do not understand the case are disturbed by that reaction. The majority of his supporters are domestic abuse survivors who rightly see her as the abuser. I agree that she should be able to work -- but know this: the media elite are siding with her, not him. He is the one whose career is ruined and if not for public support would never get it back. Even now people call him and think of him as a wife-beater. In recording after recording Heard taunts him, mocks him, screams at him, calls him a "baby" and a "pussy" because he runs from physical fights. He grew up abused by his mother - she grew up (supposedly) abused by her father. You can imagine what kind of match they made.
Her main complaint in counseling and on tapes was that he didn't stay and fight with her, even when, as she says, it got physical. He ran from her. She continually did everything she could to force a physical confrontation.
Johnny Depp's mother dies. He's already trying to exit the relationship. They have a fight as he's gathering the last of his things. She calls someone - he throws the phone at her.
The next day, people who saw Heard -- at least two -- said they saw no bruise on her face. The next day, at least one person sees her, no bruise on her face.
Her lawyers tell her she has to threaten him with abuse claims to get what she wants, which is: 50,000 a month in alimony, the Eastern Columbia building, their Range Rover. He doesn't give them to her (she did not sign a prenup and when he brought up a postnuptial she got so mad she threw a bottle at him which sliced off his finger, so that wasn't signed either).
Her own parents text Depp and tell him her lawyers are making her do it.
She goes public because he didn't meet her demands and they eventually settle. He gives her 7 million. She says she will donate that to charity.
It isn't until he sues the Sun that her outlandish tales of extreme physical abuse are claimed - raping her with a bottle, throwing her across the room, choking her, beating her with the back of his hand. For a woman who documented almost everything from him passed out on the couch to her own cuts and bruises -- she took no pictures of herself after this alleged assault? Witnesses who saw her immediately after saw no bruises. No cuts. Nothing.
Johnny loses his defamation case in the UK. Now Amber Heard is emboldened to become a spokesperson or domestic violence and sexual violence. She gives speeches. She writes the op-ed.
Depp, with no other options right now because the public will never believe him, must hold a very public trial. It becomes a cultural phenom. People finally have a chance to look at the case and hear the evidence. I was on her side until I did that.
He is vindicated fully in the trial. But the media can't let it go. They can't give up the idea that all women are victims and all men are abusers.
Sorry but as a victim of an extremely abusive relationship and a childhood of physical abuse I am horrified at her lies. And even more horrified by those who are now trying to tell people not to be upset about it.
So what is the punishment for Heard? Well, public shame is not a bad place to start. But I agree that she should be able to still work. I would be forgiving if she was honest and admitted she lied. I recorded a podcast and wrote a story about the trial with many of their recordings -- that link is here:
Johnny Depp was the one thrown away. And no one cares except his fans, most of whom are women.