The Common Good

In Search of the Real Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin was caught on video venting his rage against a photographer and using a homophobic slur. I actually don’t follow Alec on Twitter or keep up with celebrity news on TMZ, but apparently he’s put similar slurs in writing. In this case, however, he denies using a homophobic slur, saying he is being misquoted. And as proof that he is not homophobic, in fact just the opposite, he points to his work on behalf of marriage equality with GLAAD. In defense of his actions in the video, he insists he was only defending his family’s privacy — in the video we can clearly hear him shouting at the photographer to stay away from his wife and his baby. Here’s a brief excerpt from his blog post in which Baldwin expresses his desire to protect his family and neighbors from media harassment:

I am concerned for my family. In Bloomberg's New York, forty or fifty paparazzi are allowed to block streets, inconvenience homeowners, workers, and shoppers, and make life miserable for my neighbors. Photographers have tripped and fallen on babies in strollers on my block. They have nearly struck my wife in the face with microphones. They provoke me, daily, by getting dangerously close to me with their cameras as weapons, hoping I will react. When I do, the weapon doubles as a device to record my reaction. And then, apparently, I lose every time. 

And here’s what the prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan had to say. He is among many who called for accountability from Baldwin, GLAAD, and his current employer MSNBC. (At this writing MSNBC has suspended Baldwin’s show for two weeks.) Here’s what Sullivan said:

Look: Baldwin’s anger … was thoroughly merited. But he continually resorts to this kind of homophobic poison when he’s angry. Just as Mel Gibson revealed his true feelings about Jews in his drunken rant, so Baldwin keeps revealing his own anti-gay bigotry. These outbursts reveal who he actually is. (Emphasis in original)

So which is it? Is Baldwin a raging (literally) homophobe or is he a decent guy protecting his family and neighbors? Whenever I encounter an either/ or choice like this, I know I am in the presence of a possible scapegoating incident for three reasons:

  1. A scapegoat must be identified as completely evil. To gang up against someone, we have to believe that they are rotten to their core — we have to choose the raging homophobe option. But notice I said “believe” and not “prove beyond a shadow of a doubt.” As long as we believe, we can hate, punish, vilify, and name call without remorse. Even if someone is guilty of a crime or moral failing, as in the case of bigotry, very few, if any of us, are rotten to our core. An accusation of total, irredeemable wickedness that deserves punishment without trial should always raise scapegoating alarm bells for us.
  2. Scapegoating requires unity. If enough of us believe in the scapegoat’s guilt, then the scapegoat will have few defenders and we can attack without fear of reprisal. As we attack, we experience a sense of unity with those on our side, a unity so strong that it insists we shout down any dissenting opinions. Who is rising to defend Alec Baldwin now and what sort of reaction are they getting? As defenders are silenced, the call for punishment grows louder.
  3. Scapegoating creates community.  As we pursue our scapegoat, all of our own shortcomings fade from view. Any conflicts or arguments that had plagued our community before, seem trivial in the face of this terrible threat. As we unite against this enemy, our community feels more at peace with itself than it ever has. In this case, it might be that those combating persistent anti-gay bigotry are experiencing a sense of triumph, perhaps congratulating themselves on having “won one” for their side by defeating Alec Baldwin the bigot. Yet we must always go back to Rule #1 and ask ourselves, on whose body does our triumph rest? Just how wicked and irredeemable was our chosen enemy?

So let’s rephrase the question. The issue here does not involve determining the essence of who Alec Baldwin actually is. The question raised by this incident is about ourselves: What benefit are we getting from taking sides? Do we feel righteous, certain that we are on the right side of the issue? If yes, then whether Baldwin is homophobic doesn’t matter at all. Because we are not interested in learning that truth, but in using the incident to pat ourselves on the back for not being like Alec Baldwin.  I’m reminded of a story Jesus told as a warning to not think too highly of ourselves. On the temple steps is an upstanding Pharisee who prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector [or Alec Baldwin].” Here’s what the tax collector was praying: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Jesus explained the point of his story: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:11-14)

If we are genuinely concerned about defending against the hate and bigotry of homophobia, then we would be wise to not participate in hate and bigotry ourselves. In other words, let’s show a little humility and admit just how little we can know about the heart of another human being. Hating and hunting Alec Baldwin does nothing to either help him overcome his bigotry, if indeed he is so afflicted, or to ease the pain of victims of bigotry. In fact, no one but the photographer would ever have heard the slur in question if media outlets had not picked it up (I wonder how much he was paid for that little clip!), knowing we would gobble it up. By giving so much attention to this incident, we may be the ones inflicting more pain on victims of homophobia than Alec Baldwin ever could have done without our help. So if we are truly interested in combating bigotry, we should start by taking responsibility for our own need to build ourselves up by knocking someone else down. And the next time we finding ourselves tempted to join the battle against evil, let’s not and instead set aside an hour or two for self-reflection. A little humility would make the world a much better place.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

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