This past weekend, Jonah Hill came under fire after spewing a homophobic slur at a member of the paparazzi (if you want to see the video, you can visit tmz.com). The cameraman caught the hateful language on film and shared it with the press, causing some backlash against the actor. Yesterday, Hill took to the airwaves on the Howard Stern Show* to present a public apology. Hill explained, “This person had been following me around all day, had been saying hurtful things about my family, really hurtful things about me personally. And I played into exactly what he wanted and lost my cool. And in that moment, I said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any group of people… I’m not at all defending my choice of words, but I’m happy to be the poster boy for thinking about what you say and how those words — even if you don’t intend them — and how they’re rooted in hate and that’s bullshit and I shouldn’t have said that” (cited from Time).
Hill seems remorseful for his words. He admits to using them in a moment of rage to police or reprimand the behavior of the cameraman. This type of behavior is not surprising to those of us who study gender and sexualities. As CJ Pascoe explains in Dude, You’re a Fag, many boys invoke the fag discourse as a way to police both masculinity and heterosexuality. Young men may not always fully intend the underlying homophobia, but they do know that these words are an affront to other men’s gender and/or sexuality. In other words, the fag discourse is a tool to police other men. This is clearly what happened with the confrontation between Hill and the cameraman.
What I think is so important about Hill’s apology is that he reminds us that those hateful words have a history and a specific meaning. While many people, men and women, might use homophobic slurs without contemplating their meaning, those words, at their core, are still homophobic. They perpetuate homophobia. As Hill suggests, there is no excuse for using hateful words. Hill does not defend his actions, but instead asks others to learn from them.
This instance has left me contemplating, “is an apology enough?” Apologizing for bad behavior is a good first step, but how specifically can we help people learn from these moments and take responsibility for their actions? How can people, regular and celebrity alike, atone for their use of hateful language and use those experiences as teaching moments? What types of activist interventions might be useful? Please share your thoughts and your experiences as activists and academics.
*As a footnote, I would like to add that I am unsure how I feel about this apology airing on an openly misogynist radio show.