I live under a pop-culture rock, and it is only because of his inner-orbit position on the Six Degrees of Channing Tatum that I even know Jonah Hill’s name. But his recent run-in with a paparazzo, culminating in him angrily calling the man a derogatory term for a gay man and commanding him to perform a particular sex act, to me, is less about who he is than what he said, the public’s response, and his later reaction to his own behavior.
Hill appeared both on The Howard Stern Show and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to apologize for his outburst.
Calling himself a lifelong supporter of LGBT people, he first claimed that he “didn’t mean it in a homophobic way,” but then refused to give himself that pass saying, “I think that [it] doesn’t matter how you mean things….Words have weight and meaning, and the word I chose was grotesque and no one deserves to say or hear words like that.”
The first part is an old hat. We have all heard “that’s so gay” as a synonym for “stupid” or “lame.” It gets thrown around quite casually, and when challenged, the default response is “that isn’t how I meant it,” in a tone suggesting this should just be okay with you.
More extreme epithets like the one Hill used are tossed around like a football by alpha-males in their understanding of good humor but emerge for others only at moments of anger or stress. Hill attempted to explain to Fallon’s audience that his behavior was triggered by a prolonged bout of harassment by the cameraman, who was hurling insults at him and his family.
Yet he seemed almost shocked by his own choice of words as if he didn’t know he was capable of saying such things.
Either he’s a better actor than 22 Jump Street gives him room to demonstrate, or he genuinely regrets that we all know this about him, and was somewhat stunned to learn it about himself.
What I think bears reflection, however, is why is this where (generally male, but not always) people’s brains go in that moment. Hill told Fallon “I wanted to hurt [him] back, I wanted…the most hurtful word I could think of at that moment.” He assumed his antagonist was heterosexual, and thus the go-to insult would be to not only imply otherwise but to immediately then direct him to a passive role, asserting Hill’s superiority over him.
The day after this all happened, The OASIS, the LGBT ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, marked 25 years since it became the first such outreach authorized by a Christian bishop. The project, established in 1989 at All Saints Church in Hoboken, NJ by the Right Rev. John Shelby Spong, provided a “safe space” for gay men and lesbians (bisexual and transgender folks were added to the equation later) to worship with their whole selves at a time when this was largely impossible even in a comparatively progressive church. In his sermon at the event, Rev. Harry Knox invited participants to unpack a similar theme:
The endemic misogyny at the root of homophobia and transphobia.
If one starts out with the premise that it’s just a little bit better to be male than female, then logically one will look with disdain on a man who seems to reject this privilege by assuming a role and mannerisms you associate with women. And a woman who dares to assert herself and claim authority reserved in one’s psyche for men will be perceived as a threat. Even the gay male community has bought into it, with personal ads peppered with “masc. only” or even “straight-acting” as a selling point.
We can claim to have evolved as a society, and in fact, on paper we have. New laws giving LGBT people various rights and protections are passing at a rate that has triggered resignation and even backlash from those who feel threatened by the loss of privilege the status quo might have given them. In many social settings, it is no longer okay to make racist, sexist, or homo- or trans-phobic comments, and one can be expected to be challenged for it.
There is noise from some quarters that this has gone so far that our collective sense of humor has been lost as a result. I think it is healthy to be able to laugh at ourselves and a little irreverence does help keep things in perspective.
That is different, however, from using words as weapons.
Hill claims he regrets his actions, and many of the online commenters seem willing to forgive him. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, but this accomplishes little unless he does the extra homework to examine why, as a self-proclaimed friend of our community, he immediately defaulted back to asserting his hetero-male privilege when the chips were down.
If I call someone the name that he did and acknowledge I did so as an act of aggression, that means I hav—somewhere in my psyche—bought into the idea that this is a bad thing to be, and less than me.
And—unlike what I might say during a carefully-scripted talk show interview—what I say in the heat of a stressful encounter is raw and pure, closer to the heart.
If I were Mr. Hill, I’d be spending some time with that.
As Luke’s Gospel tells us, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”
What we say impulsively lends more insight to what’s really going on inside us than the lines we get time to rehearse.