Some beliefs and actions can’t and shouldn’t be excused. As Disney’s audience is largely made up of children, and children may not understand nuance, sarcasm or irony, I understand and support Disney’s strong stance against James Gunn’s past jokes. Children need to learn that words or pictures dashed off on social media with little thought can carry long-lasting, serious consequences; it’s all a part of learning accountability and responsibility.
However, while a person’s actions may be inexcusable, what of the person?
I’ve said and done far worse than make a few off-color jokes. I’ve hurt people I care about. I’ve ruined friendships. I live with a guilt so great that there are times I can’t even look at myself in the mirror; but I owe it to the people I’ve hurt as well as myself to try and make myself a better person every day. The only thing that keeps me going is the hope I can be more than my mistakes and the love and support of my friends and family.
But this isn’t about me or James.
This is about children. By firing James, you are showing them that you can never get past your mistakes… that you are your mistakes. Forever. Apologies are not good enough. A changed life is not good enough. Nude pictures, reputation, family circumstances, and bullying all follow kids around from school to school in a way that didn’t happen before this age of digital permanence. Suicides are increasing1 at an alarming rate. Whether you intend to not, you are telling kids that they are right to give up. You are showing them that mistakes they made years or decades in the past can resurface and undo everything that they’ve fought and worked so hard for. More than that, you’re telling them that mistakes and the people who make them are intolerable.
Anger is easy. Outrage comes naturally. Demanding our pound of flesh feels good and provides a temporary balm for the hurt… until the next instance occurs. Then the cycle of pain begins all over again. Without a path to redemption, what lasting good comes from this—for anyone? Understanding does not result from outrage, nor are relationships built from condemnation.
I’m not saying you have to rehire James, but I am asking you to think of the world you want children to grow up in. What are the values you want them to have and hold dear? Should we approach each other with distrust, quick to judge? Or should we use compassion, empathy, hope, and love? Are we to be a society of disposable people, or one where accountability leads to growth, forgiveness and reconciliation?
I’ll leave you with one final thought:
Forgiveness, Mrs. Travers, it’s what I learned from your books… you need to forgive Helen Goff. Life is a harsh sentence to lay down for yourself. Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear every time a person walks into a movie house, from Leicester to St Louis, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids. They will weep for his cares. They will wring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite…oh, Mrs. Travers, they will rejoice. They will sing. In movie houses all over the world, in the eyes and heads of my kids and other kids, and mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks, and all that he stands for, will be saved. Now maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again. So trust me, Mrs. Travers. Let me prove it to you. I give you my word.
Thank you for your consideration.
Addendum 8/22 This is much more serious that you think
To be absolutely, positively clear: I believe that there need to be consequences for bad behavior. I also believe that forgiveness should be contingent upon accountability and contrition; and a continued relationship is based upon rebuilding the trust, which requires consistency of action and words over time.
Time to be blunt. We live in a society that rewards public figures for doubling and tripling down on lies, casting aspersions, and repeated denials. We have seen again and again that if you deny any wrong-doing and attack the accusers forcefully enough, that enough doubt is created that you can simply go on doing what you’re doing with no consequences. Disney’s actions are not taking place in a vacuum, but within this cynical and self-serving context.
So how does Disney reward James Gunn for owning up to his mistake and trying to better himself? Disney fires him. Disney demonstrated that taking accountability and seeking forgiveness can and will be used against you, with zero consideration to what you have done with your life or how much time has passed. It teaches kids that the character, integrity, and courage it takes to admit mistakes and own up to them are irrelevant. It fosters a climate of fear and distrust, where it is better to hide and deny your mistakes than trust the compassion or critical thinking of others. The message is exactly the opposite of every single one of Disney’s most popular movies and is contrary to the values upon which the company was founded.