Context Doesn’t Just Matter, It’s Everything

In Jonah Hill’s apology to the LGBT community for saying a word that’s so verboten that you have to grovel for days after saying it, he made one very revealing statement that tells you everything you need to know about how devoid of substance our current apology culture really is.

In his apology, he actually said the following sentence.

I said the most hurtful word I could think of at that moment. I didn’t mean this in the sense of the word. I didn’t mean it in a homophobic way. I think that….that doesn’t matter, you know? How you mean things doesn’t matter. Words have weight in meaning. The word I chose was grotesque. No one deserves to say or hear words like that.

Wait, what?  How you mean things doesn’t matter?  Everyone who heard this should be shocked at such a daft statement from a man who makes his living both writing and producing movies and acting, right?  Instead, people are reinforcing his idiotic statement.

Perhaps most significant in all of this is Hill’s acknowledgement that the context and what he meant by the word—a word that, like so many of us, Hill probably heard hurled with impunity throughout his teenage years, just by virtue of being a dude—simply doesn’t matter.

If the context doesn’t matter, then holy crap do we have a lot of things we need to rethink, and we can start with the actual thing that Hill said.  If you recall from yesterday’s post, he told the photographer who he felt was harassing him to “Suck my fucking dick you faggot.”  While he’s gone out of his way to distance himself and self flagellate over the use of the word “faggot,” if context doesn’t matter and only words do, Jonah Hill literally requested a blowjob from the photographer.

See what you get into when you start taking the context away from words?

And Hill is an actor.  In Hill’s movies, he has used the word faggot multiple times.  In fact, in Wolf of Wall Street, Jonah Hill tosses around the word “fag” to provoke a fight in a parking lot.  In Django Unchained, Hill appeared as a KKK member who tossed around the word “nigger” with relative ease.  By Hill’s (and by extension, by A.V. Club’s) rationale, he thinks gay people are fags and black people are niggers, since context doesn’t matter.

Adults inherently understand the importance of context, even when using words that may make people uncomfortable.  The idea that a word has a weight of its own and a mind of its own is childish, simplistic, and flat out stupid, and the idea that there is no need for discussion of context when discussing something someone says tells me that we are a long way off from being the adults we’re supposed to be.

Apologies are only sincere when we address the heart of the statement that warranted the apology.  Apologizing simply for a choice of words tells me that we don’t want to have deeper discussions about what is meant, we just want to be childish and take every word at its face value with no understanding of the intent behind it or the meaning of it.

As someone who makes their bones with words, I’m not really sure I want to live in that world.

Jonah Hill’s comment, though, shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the media and so on to any extent.  In fact, I’ve talked here about apology culture many times, and there’s one thing in common with nearly every story about someone apologizing: words are punished with a complete disregard for context.

Joan Rivers, as I wrote about a few weeks ago, caught hell for joking that her room at Melissa’s house was as small as the room the Cleveland kidnap girls were held in.  She didn’t diminish their suffering or anything else, but the mere mention of the girls was called disrespectful and everyone jumped on her, resulting in Willie Geist making the most insincere and over the top apology I’ve ever seen a human being make.  The context of her words didn’t matter, she was soundly beaten, verbally, for saying them.

A game development company, Turtle Rock Studios, fired its community manager for saying that Donald Sterling was the victim of a person who betrayed his trust by recording his conversations and distributing them to the media.  In his tweet, he said…

k56nfdbpcck58tjhmhwxTurtle Rock immediately let him go, saying that his comments stand in stark contrast to the beliefs of the company.  Notice, Olin did not say he was correct for his views, only that his privacy was violated and it’s wrong, but the lynch mob focused on his quote of “He’s a victim.” and used that to determine that Olin supported the racism he espoused and therefore he had to be fired.  Again, context be damned.

Pharrell Williams recently landed in hot water for a cover of Elle UK on which he was wearing a Native American head dress.

pharrell-williams-elle-uk-featuredIt didn’t matter that the context wasn’t disrespectful or that he wasn’t pulling a YMCA Indian Chief gimmick, and it didn’t matter that he is, in fact, part Native American, he immediately was harassed until he apologized over the cover, and of course he had to give the usual caveats that he never meant to offend and he honors all cultures.  Some still haven’t accepted his apology and the cries of “cultural appropriation” have run wild, mostly from Western-dressing Native American tribes who wear jeans, sneakers, and other parts of a culture they’re totally not appropriating, you guys.

It just keeps getting more ridiculous, and the more ridiculous it gets, the less we discuss the context of the thing that’s allegedly offensive because all we need is someone to be outraged and that’s good enough to demand an apology even if the “offending” remark or word wasn’t directed directly at them or to them.

Jonah Hill’s admission that context doesn’t matter is very enlightening and shines light on a problem we have in this country and, to a similar extent, the rest of the world: we’re shallow, thoughtless, and base in our arguments and reactionary in our comments on current events, particularly controversial ones.  When anyone can say, to a modern civilized world that “What you meant don’t matter; we only care about what you said because we can’t be bothered to give you the courtesy of thinking about meaning before we react,” we’re setting ourselves down a bad and dangerous path.

I’m scared.

Header Image via David Goehring on Flickr


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