As part of his promotional tour for the new blockbuster sci-fi comedy action film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, star Chris Pratt apparently said something outrageous in one of his Instagram videos and has to now adopt that all-too-familiar celebrity behavior of the public apology.
But what he said really isn’t particularly offensive and the fact that there was a backlash and that it got loud enough that Pratt felt the need to respond speaks volumes about this moment in American cultural history.
In the video snippet, Pratt urges views to “turn up the volume and not just read the subtitles”. Part of the fun of the Guardians of the Galaxy series, of course, are the great 80’s songs that comprise the soundtrack. But some members of what’s now known as the “hearing-impaired community” (I guess “deaf” is derogatory? Am I unknowingly committing a hate crime by even using it in this blog post?) got upset. They saw his comment as “dismissive, given that some don’t have that option [ to turn up the volume ]”
Which sure seems to be another step on the road towards being so infinitely sensitive, so hyper-inclusive, so super-diverse that no-one can say anything, can make any jokes, can do much of anything without inevitably offending some thin-skinned person along the way. Or, um, is the thickness of someone’s skin also off limits?
I had a conversation about this very topic over the weekend with my buddy Steve and realized as we were talking the genius of John Stewart Mills’ philosophy of utilitarianism, and how us moving away from that simple idea is gradually costing us our collective cultural sanity.
What’s utilitarianism? The greatest good for the greatest number.
Is that some evil commie collectivism where everything’s about The State? I don’t see it that way at all. It’s about asking important questions about how far is too far when it comes to accommodating individuals who aren’t part of the greater norm?
When I was studying for my Masters Degree at the Purdue University School of Education, I heard horror stories about small rural school districts having to allocate the vast majority of their budget to redesign a classroom, buy a special bus, hire trained staff to accommodate one particular disabled child. Even to the detriment of the other children who attended that school (though the teachers couldn’t admit that in public). Same underlying question: what’s the appropriate balance between the needs of the individual versus the group?
Then there’s the voice that everyone now has, whether they represent the 51%, the 20%, the 1% or the 0.000001% of the population. It’s the ultimate form of egalitarianism, where everyone’s important and everyone has an equally loud voice to proclaim it.
But the fundamental question remains: at what point does a sub-group become a minority that doesn’t need, or shouldn’t receive special accommodation? A person with a dramatic peanut allergy can change the food offerings on a trans-Atlantic flight, but should they shut down food service at the departure and destination airports in case there’s a stray peanut somewhere? Or outlaw peanuts entirely?
Which brings us back to Chris Pratt and Guardians of the Galaxy 2. In a film where the music plays an important narrative role, it seems completely reasonable for the promotional campaign to highlight the soundtrack, including snarky and wry comments about “turn up the volume” to appreciate this facet of the film. Further, in the movie, Pratt (who plays wise-ass Starlord) is irreverent, sarcastic and brash, so the tone of his promotional effort is completely consistent with that.
But we never turn the mirror back around nowadays, instead wallowing in our great collective cultural angst and guilt about any and everything, even things we can’t possibly affect or change. But maybe I’m just the one out of touch here and I should be apologizing to any number of minority groups who see aggression, insult, criticism and lack of support and understanding in my words. Like a high school friend who takes offense at everything, boy is it going to be a long, tedious and exhausting future if that’s really where we’re heading.
Photo of Chris Pratt used under creative commons license. Image by Gordon Correll.