Personal Accountability in the Age of Social Media

Michael Odenthal


This is an age of unparalleled transparency. With the steady grind of an always-hungry-for-content 24-hour news cycle, and the unprecedented window into individuals’ personal lives provided by social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Vine and Instagram, so much of what people do or think is documented that, for those who embrace these modes of communication, it would seem nearly impossible for anyone to disown a statement or action expressed through one of these public forums.


Yet, as society's desire to be made aware of even the most mundane details of each other’s lives – especially of those deemed celebrities – grows ever more insatiable, accountability for actions deemed offensive, outrageous, or just in poor taste has not risen accordingly. Despite the fact that everything anyone does or says is seemingly recorded and posted online within minutes, those in the public eye are continuously putting their proverbial feet in their mouths, and, much more curiously, refusing to take full ownership of their actions, regardless of how clear the evidence of these actions is.


In late August/early September, singer/rapper/host Cee Lo Green, of televised singing competition The Voice, having just pleaded no contest to a charge of furnishing a controlled substance, found himself at the center of a debate as to whether the woman to whom he provided ecstasy – the “controlled substance” in question – was aware that she was being given the drug or not, and whether what he did constitutes rape. In what can be described objectively as an ill-thought attempt at damage control, Green took to Twitter to state his case, firing out since-deleted missives such as “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” (apparently in response to the woman’s claim to have blacked out the evening) and “If someone is passed out they’re not even WITH you consciously! So WITH implies consent.”


These statements are all more-or-less indefensible, as Green’s PR team seemed to realize immediately, because, in response to the immediate backlash toward the above, Green issued what has become the pseudo-apology du jour for celebrities caught acting the fool: that he was sorry for “[his] comments being taken so far out of context.” As Daniel D’Addario pointed out in a Sept. 2nd piece for Salon, Green is not saying so much that his comments “were in any way wrong – it’s that they were taken out of their apparent context of the free and open exchange of ideas about there being no such thing as rape when it comes to the unconscious.”


Now, regardless of Green’s misconceptions about the definition of rape, there’s another cognitive dissonance at play here. Namely, the definition of the phrase “out of context,’ and what certain people in the public eye seem to want it to mean. A statement is only “out of context” if the person citing said statement is misconstruing it to mean something that the originally attributed party did not intend. Unless Green was dictating his tweets to a mischievous nephew who was playing loose and light with his word choices, a direct 140-or-less character remark from his verified Twitter account is about as “in context” – and therefore a direct look into the mindset of Cee Lo Green – as one can ask for. The fact of the matter is that, in this particular situation, the “context” at play is an unfiltered stream of thought from Green himself, absent of the advice of any professional handlers. (Had any such adviser been on hand, Green would most likely be feeling much more optimistically about his career right now). However, “out of context” seems to be thrown around more and more frequently in this information age, as a misguided attempt at a “get out of jail free” pass. It’s a way to say “that was stupid, and I shouldn’t have said it,” without turning an iota of the blame inward.


Green isn’t alone in hiding (poorly, in view of everyone) behind the “out of context” catch-all. In early August of this year, during a particularly horrific week in the violent conflict between Israel and Palestine, the late Joan Rivers – notorious throughout her celebrated career for her incendiary, take-no-prisoners remarks – was asked by TMZ to share her feelings about civilian casualties among Palestinians. Rivers' reply read as follows:


“Ask Colin Powell. When you declare war, you declare war. They started it. We don’t count who’s dead. You’re dead. You deserve to be dead. You started it. Don’t you dare make me feel sad about that. You can’t get rid of Hamas, you have to say you do not recognize them, they are terrorists… They were re-elected by a lot of very stupid people who don’t even own a pencil.”


As one can imagine, these comments were met with uproar, so much so that Rivers had to hire a bodyguard to look over her during what would become her final days. But the inflammatory nature of her diatribe is not the issue at hand; said issue, rather, is the nature of her subsequent (and somewhat unsurprising given the nature of this piece) response to those who took offense. On Facebook shortly after the TMZ incident, Rivers claimed that her comments were twisted around all pretzel-like, saying, in part, that “the media, as usual, has decided to only quote the most out of context and inflammatory non-sequitur rather than giving an accurate account of what my intentions were behind the statement.” Now, outside of editing the interview to omit the fact that Rivers said “just kidding!” immediately after claiming that innocent Palestinians who were killed by Israeli military attacks “deserve to be dead,” there aren’t many contexts in which the latter statement could be deemed compassionate. An out-of-context claim in this situation is about as plausible a defense as demonic possession or a Tourette's-induced outburst, yet it is again deployed by a provenly intelligent and witty celebrity.

While these are just two of the most recent notable incidents of context confusion, this somewhat deluded shirking of responsibility has been going on for years and is not limited to notably outspoken musicians and comedians. On the contrary, actors, designers, politicians are all culpable; choice of profession seems to matter little in regard to denying responsibility for public gaffes. It appears that all one needs is access to a spotlight, and little understanding of the magnitude of said access in the modern era. To wit:


  • In a March 24, 2010 interview with Sean O’Neal of the AV Club, "Big Love" actress Chloe Sevigny had this to say about her program: “It was awful this season, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not allowed to say that! [Gasps.] It was very telenovela. I feel like it kind of got away from itself.”

    In a March 26 follow-up with EW’s Michael Ausiello, Sevigny blamed her comments on exhaustion and an inability to think straight after a day of press junkets, which is all well and good, but not before claiming that “the reporter [she] was speaking to was provoking [her]” and that “[she felt] like what [she said] was taken out of context."
  • In a Metro article that ran on February 6, 2012, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld described the multi-platinum and Grammy award-winning songstress Adele as being “a little too fat.” When confronted with entirely predictable backlash after an unprovoked attack on a beloved pop star, Lagerfeld was quick to apologize, but not without including the line, “Sometimes when you take a sentence out of the article, it changes the meaning of the thought.” Points off for omitting the word ‘context,’ but a qualifying entry nonetheless.
  • Finally, in a June 9, 2008 interview with Fox News’ Carl Cameron (direct link since taken down, but chronicled here), John McCain claimed that a comment pertaining to his respective lack of economic knowledge was taken out of context. This is by no means a rare tactic for a politician, but it is particularly egregious in this case, because, during the run-up to his eventually unsuccessful presidential bid that year, McCain gave credence to his perceived weakness on economic issues on several occasions, dutifully compiled by Media Matters here.



Now, it seems abundantly clear that the statements above stand on their own merits, regardless of any journalist’s packaging thereof. When one describes something as “terrible” or a person as “a little too fat,” one is making a specific, concise judgment that reveals his or her own belief or opinion. The only way that the meaning of Sevigny's or Lagerfeld’s comments could have been misinterpreted is if they were immediately followed by another, directly contradictory statement that was omitted by the journalist; something akin to “but that would be a ridiculous thing to say, and of course I don’t mean that!” or “the former word that I used is the opposite of the way that I actually feel.” Because the full transcripts of these conversations are available, it is clear that they did not do this. And McCain’s denial of his remarks regarding his grasp of the economy borders on the pathological.


While public figures continue to repudiate their own words, instead blaming journalists and crying “out of context” when they commit an embarrassing faux pas, there are signs that public acceptance and willingness to give the benefit of the doubt is reaching its tipping point. Even when certain major media outlets are lax in pressing the responsible party to take ownership, the immediacy of outlets like Facebook and Twitter allow non-journalists to strike back in real time, calling the offending parties out not only for their transgressions, but for their insincere follow-ups. The disgusted reaction to every development in Green’s rape tirade, or the immediate outpouring of support on the AV Club’s  message board for O’Neal in the wake of Sevigny’s throwing of him under the metaphorical bus illustrate that people are open-minded enough to dig further and make up their own minds, rather than buying what the person with the loudest microphone is selling.


There is a counter-example to the “out of context” phenomenon that hopefully indicates where the culture is headed. In June of this year, actor Jonah Hill appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, ostensibly to promote his then-new film 22 Jump Street.


However, the interview took an unconventional turn almost immediately, as the usually affable and funny performer quickly turned somber, addressing an incident from days earlier wherein he had fired back with a homophobic slur at a paparazzo who had been antagonizing him. Perhaps realizing that hiding behind a curtain of dishonesty or assigning blame to a generally voiceless third party would be met with resounding eye rolls from his audience, or – seemingly more likely – genuinely feeling that he was in the wrong and truly shaken by the series of events, Hill used his extremely public platform to issue an emotional apology, taking full responsibility for his choice of wording, and actively acknowledging that the “context” in which he had used the term in question was irrelevant, as words have an agency unto themselves that render them hurtful or offensive or frightening – any number of emotional responses, really -- regardless of the variables surrounding them.


Hopefully others can learn from Hill, and realize that, while people can accept that their fellow human beings often say the wrong thing at the wrong time, screw up, choose their words poorly, etc., empathy is earned through honesty. Accusing a straw man of warping one's own expressed sentiments should not be acceptable in an age where eyes and ears are everywhere. Insincerity and assignment of blame read as a lack of remorse, and a lack of acknowledged fallibility. Accountability and responsibility are fast becoming a new kind of cultural capital, and those who understand this can rebound from their mistakes far faster than those who don’t. The proof is in the pudding: 22 Jump Street went on to make nearly $200 million this summer, while Green was dropped from two festivals at which he was scheduled to perform, had his reality show canceled, and is probably at a Pizza Hut right now, eating stuffed crust with his head down.


Celebrities take heed and read that tweet over a few more times before clicking “send.”



Author Bio:

Michael Odenthal is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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