Apparently, being Kevin Hart means never having to say you’re sorry.
Just weeks after vehemently defending the controversial “Cowboys and Indians”-themed birthday party he threw for his one-year-old son (on Thanksgiving Day, no less), the comedian is at the center of yet another controversy that he refused to apologize for.
This week, homophobic tweets from the early 2000s surfaced wherein Hart belittles LGBTQ people through uses of words and phrases like “fag,” “no homo” or using “gay” as a derogatory term.
This homophobia was not reserved to his Twitter account. In his 2010 special, “Seriously Funny,” in talking about raising his son Hart said, “One of my biggest fears is my son growing up and being gay. That’s a fear. Keep in mind, I’m not homophobic. . . . Be happy. Do what you want to do. But me, as a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will.”
The outrage over this is reasonable. In a society where LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to be homeless, have higher rates of mental illness and risk of suicide, statements like Hart’s are not neutral in the present day―nor were they in the past―regardless of the social acceptability of bigotry that was in much media in the 2000s (if you need an example, try watching Bring it On. It’s a friggin’ homophobic mess).
It’s no surprise that that people began to dig up the homophobic tweets from Hart’s past when he was invited to host the next Academy Awards ceremony in which several movies, like “Boy Erased” and “The Favourite,” center storylines about LGBTQ+-identifying people. When Hart’s tweets came to the attention of the Academy, they asked him to apologize.
And he refused.
Can Hart show that he’s realized that he harmed people and make right on the harm that he caused? Apparently not.
“I passed on the apology,” Hart said in a video posted to Instagram. “The reason why I passed is because I’ve addressed this several times ... I’m not going to continue to go back and tap into the days of old when I’ve moved, and I’m in a complete[ly] different stage in my life...I’m going to be me. I’m going to stand my ground.”
“If you don’t believe that people change, grow evolve as they get older, I don’t know what to tell you,” Hart said in another Instagram video. “If you want to hold people in a position where they always have to justify for their past...I’m the wrong guy. I’m in a great place. A great mature place where all I do is spread positivity.”
What Hart (and many of his fans who agree with his decision) seems to misunderstand is that acknowledging that people were hurt by something that he said does not mean that he has changed the behavior or ideologies that caused the hurt. His internal sense of dealing with it and moving on doesn’t undo the initial harm he caused.
Hart later went to Twitter to formally announce that he was stepping down from his role as host, saying that he was sorry for being insensitive and that he is “evolving.” Yet he still misses the point.
His critics and the Academy are not challenging whether he is more sensitive or a different person than he was in 2011 (hopefully, he is! Hopefully, we all are). They are challenging his professed evolution. Can he show that he’s realized that he harmed people and make right on the harm that he caused?
Sure, he may have said he was sorry and that he “sincerely apologized.” But apologies in this way are cheap. A person says “I’m sorry,” and expects a get-out-of-jail-free card. Perpetrators of harm let themselves off the hook by uttering two simple words and acknowledging that they caused pain without taking on the responsibility to learn, grow and change.
A true apology, a true acknowledgment of harm done from Hart would involve talking about the implications of his words, not just apologizing for who he used to be. Accountability and apologizing aren’t mutually exclusive, but in Hart’s case and many others, people want their apologies to be the end of the story. They have “I’m sorry” absolve them of the responsibility to be accountable for their work.
But apologizing is like a math problem. To get the credit, you have to show your work.
Hart cannot expect people to get over his homophobia and its implications when he has clearly chosen not to fully engage with the specific critiques that people are bringing to him.
In Hart’s case, the work could have looked like discontinuing Seriously Funny, deleting the old tweets before they were found, donating money to LGBTQ organizations, requesting an LGBTQ-identifying host (or even co-host) for the Academy Awards or many other things.
Instead, he chose to focus on our societal sensitivity and inability to accept change, saying the world has “gone crazy” for expecting him to apologize. That is how we know that he has missed the evolution that he claims to have undergone.
The culture of outrage in which we currently live and breathe isn’t born from nothing. People from marginalized communities have never been happy about their marginalization. It’s only as a result of recent movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #NoDAPL and more that we’ve started to have conversations about the many grievances marginalized people in this country face. And as such, we’re holding people in power accountable for oppressive behaviors that were once the norm.
This isn’t a liberal agenda, it is holding people accountable to the level of progress that society has made, even if they haven’t chosen to keep up.
But this consistent effort to hold people accountable is often be seen as not giving people a chance to change and grow when they are constantly brought to answer for their past. However, this is a misdirection. In most cases where cultural outrage pulls people’s past sins into the foreground, it provides an opportunity to do more than simply say “I’m sorry.” It’s an opportunity to do the work, to get specific in acknowledging not only that people were harmed, but that the person doing harm understands why they felt that way and why that harm isn’t easily healed.
In the midst of problematic ideologies, we must push for a culture of accountability and change, not just meaningless apologies.
Some people are celebrating Hart stepping down, but I think that also misses the point. His stepping down allows him to continue to avoid taking more responsibility and apologizing not just with his words. Let’s be honest, tweeting “I apologize” isn’t that hard and doesn’t really involve much internal reckoning, but with his actions, he can show a changed life.
The expectation of forgiveness or moving on in this context cheapens forgiveness by cheapening trauma. Hart cannot expect people to get over his homophobia and its implications when he has clearly chosen not to fully engage with the specific critiques that people are bringing to him. Hart feels entitled to forgiveness but doesn’t seem to be responsible for what he has put into the world.
Hart may not the be the 2009-2011 homophobe he was before, but that is a low bar. He used his medium of comedy to make money off of normalizing parental homophobia toward their children. He made money by indoctrinating his son into his own homophobia through fear and advising others doing the same.
Hart himself claims that he evolved but he has missed an opportunity to actually prove it, to step back, to think deeply, to have himself be changed by his critics and not just chased away by them. His defensiveness and disengagement aren’t unique and are markers of many of us who don’t know how to deal with our pasts.
Like Hart, we all have many opportunities in life to not simply try to scoot past the harm we are responsible for causing, but to be accountable, to take responsibility, to prove that we understand why the harmed person is upset, to try to make things right and then, after all of that work is over, to apologize.
Because an apology without change is simply hiding our problematic selves under the guise of emotional sensitivity. We can do better and build inner lives that can not only handle critique, but we can use these experiences as a motivator to examine ourselves closely and change in the places where we have caused harm.
In the last few years, it has become clear that celebrities, men, white people, straight people―really all people―are ideologically and generally problematic. In the midst of problematic ideologies, we must push for a culture of accountability and change, not just meaningless apologies.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.