On Alec Baldwin and the Public Shame of the Private Prick

February 26, 2014

Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for...

Alec Baldwin comes off as an entitled, ignorant prick in his New York Magazine rant, which is a genuine rant, as in it conjures the image of a child swinging a plastic sword at elaborate bogeymen so wildly that he falls on his ass. This proves Baldwin’s point in a way he probably never intended, and more powerfully than any of the ways he did: lots of people, most people, behave like entitled, ignorant pricks in their private lives, but Alec Baldwin is an entitled, ignorant prick in the eyes of the world.

Famous people like Alec Baldwin inspire less reverence than they once did, for two reasons: 1) fame, or at least some form of public attention, is no longer that hard to attain; and 2) the lives of famous people are less insulated than they once were, in the sense that “there are cameras everywhere, and there are media outlets for [non-famous people with cameras] to ‘file their story.’ They take your picture in line for coffee. They’re trying to get a picture of your baby. Everyone’s got a camera. When they’re done, they tweet it.”

This means that, increasingly, we think of famous people as normal people that more people know about. Also increasingly, normal people are becoming famous without ever having asked for it—like maybe they’ll say something funny on the news, or their partner will leak classified documents to media outlets who will then discover their blog. Once you’re famous, you are at the mercy of a peanut gallery of millions, as well as paparazzi who might camp outside your apartment, follow you and your family to your car, and “practically [clip your] kid in the head with the lens of a camera,” because public people are treated like public property.

In such situations, you might say things that are dumb but get misreported as hateful and awful. Or you might say things that really are hateful and awful that you should definitely recant and apologize for in a way that is neither self-serving nor defensive, while doing your best to make sure your influence becomes a power for good rather than evil. Either way, you were just trying to get your family into the car. Now you are a villain.

Don’t get me wrong. Homophobia is deeply villainous. It should be roundly condemned wherever it appears. Further, it seems reasonable to hold public people to universal standards of conduct, which means it seems reasonable to condemn Alec Baldwin’s use of homophobic slurs, as well as his nutty, paranoid screed laced with offensive epithets (like “tranny,” used in an anecdote meant to demonstrate his sensitivity) and references to “the Gay Justice Department.”

Beyond condemnation, though, it seems productive to consider why someone who campaigns for marriage equality might still utter homophobic slurs in the heat of rage. The same way that when—for example—a professor says that he’s “not interested in teaching books by women,” it does more good to think about the tradition he represents and how to stamp it the hell out of our universities than to keep stomping on the dude caught saying in public what millions are thinking to themselves. Thinking while, in many cases, stomping.

Also, just as an exercise, if you want, it never hurts to try empathizing with the villain. Not out of tolerance for what he’s done, but because it builds moral muscle, and makes you wiser, and because no one is perfect. And because we are living in an age where any of us could ruin our lives with one click or one utterance—if not a hateful one, then one more innocuously stupid. And because the prism of social media turns idiotic missteps, even totally idiotic missteps, into crimes against God and Nature. And because, if we’re all potentially public, then we can appreciate Alec Baldwin’s statement that, “every time people throw this mud on me, there are very serious consequences in my life.”

Even when the “mud” consists of words he himself allegedly uttered, or published in a magazine with a circulation of 1,774,000. “Am I bitter about some of the things that have happened to me in the past year? Yes, I’m a human being.” That last clause doesn’t excuse the rest of his tirade, but it explains a lot.

Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for the Globe and Mail. Her writing has appeared in The Cut, The Believer, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine.