Liam Payne And The Rush To Judgment

Posted on January 24, 2014 at 1:00 AM

By Dennis Stone

Liam Payne is a homophobic douchebag.

Wait, what???

That seems to be the common (or almost universal?) perception in the gay community of the One Direction singer this week, following a tweet he sent to one of the Duck Dynasty guys that generated huge publicity in the gay press and blogosphere. Here is the tweet:

"Huge love to you/your family huge respect for your business prosperities and the family values you still all behold Big fan."

As we all know, the head quacker, family patriarch Phil Robertson, had gained notoriety with an interview with GQ magazine in November in which he expressed disdain for gay sex, and stated that it was a sin. (Though he did not equate homosexuality and bestiality, as many media outlets continue to say.) When Payne tweeted his admiration for the family, and especially when he used the phrase “family values,” the impression was given that he supported Robertson’s anti-gay views. (For the record the tweet was sent to Willie Robertson, the CEO of the family company, and the son of Phil, rather than to Phil himself.)

People saw the tweet, instantly assumed the worst, and then rushed to social media to condemn and lambaste the latest transgressor against our community. Twitter erupted, the blogosphere rose up, and mainstream media – especially gay media – picked up the story and ran with it. Payne was portrayed as the latest anti-gay celebrity who couldn’t keep his homophobia to himself. Commenters on these sites were routinely vicious. Even celebrity YouTuber and unabashed One Direction fan Tyler Oakley chimed in, tweeting: "Very confused and disappointed by this …. This literally changes everything."

There’s just one problem. If you apply even a small amount of thought to the situation, you will see that there is significant reason to doubt the perception that Payne is homophobic, or was expressing any anti-gay feelings. The tweet said nothing about the gay issue, so to assume homophobia you have to assume that Payne’s comment about “family values” was a direct reference to Phil Robertson’s comments.

The members of One Direction have been living a whirlwind for the past couple of years, constantly touring, recording, doing publicity, etc. There has been no time for any sort of relaxation or personal life, nothing resembling the sorts of lives we “regular people” live. Further, the group is from Britain, where – stunningly – news about American celebrities does not dominate the conversation.

One of the most annoying and frustrating aspects of much of the gay community is how we focus so much of our energy around our gay identity, and how we interpret all of life in that context. The Phil Robertson interview became a big deal to many of us because a small part of the interview dealt with our identity. It was a story worth noting, but to me the coverage was grotesquely overblown. So a self-described “Bible thumping” conservative redneck expressed traditional religious views in an interview. Big deal. To most straight people the story came and went in a day, if they heard about it at all. To British straight people it was even less noted. And to British straight people in touring boy bands with no life of their own it would most likely go completely unnoticed.

According to Liam’s sister, that is exactly what happened. She talked to Liam the day after the controversy erupted, and she says that Liam had not known about Phil’s anti-gay comments. The members of the band finally returned from the road to some semblance of normal life at Christmas time. Liam relaxed and watched some television, including Duck Dynasty. He was impressed with the family’s business sense, their success, and the way they conduct their family life. And indeed, on those terms, there is a lot to admire. Hell, I myself admire much about the clan’s “family values.” They love each other unconditionally, they are there for each other, they spend quality time together, they eat meals together, their family relationships are the most important thing in their lives. Though obviously I despise Phil’s feelings about gay people (and black people as well), and though as an animal rights supporter I am almost equally turned off by his stated pleasure in killing living things, the positive family values are real.

And so Liam Payne tweeted his admiration to Willie Robertson. And all hell broke loose.

I have been disappointed and even stunned by the rush to judgment that occurred. Few people stopped to wonder if Payne even knew about Phil Robertson’s comments. Few considered the historically positive relationship One Direction has had with its gay fans. Few considered the apparently radical idea that we could get clarification of the tweet and the thoughts behind it before forming a viciously negative opinion. The Robertsons are Satan’s minions, after all, and so nuance is not required, context doesn’t matter, and anyone expressing any sort of approval of them must immediately become our enemy.

Payne was obviously stunned by the reaction, and he sent out several tweets in response, constituting what many observers described as a “rant.” Here are a few of them:

Being a fan of someones show and the way they still hold a family together doesnt mean i am ok with all they say.

Oh my god can someone literally not be a fan of a show without bring labeled WTf I bought dinner the other day it made a news story

What I gotta do to please you bastards I'm a 20 year old just living life as you did when u were twenty but in extraordinary circumstances

I can't do anything without being judged u try that and write about it I just watched a show and I liked it as most people do stop sitting in my twitter and do your research

Pick ur balls up off the floor and get on with it instead of taking advantage of every word said and twisting it for your own gain

Those are the tweets of someone who feels wronged, who feels that something innocent on his part was misinterpreted and twisted. In his mind, he’s just a guy who enjoyed a television show, saw family relationships he admired, and sent a positive tweet to the family, only to become the target of hatred.

His tweets raise important issues about the popular culture of our internet age, and about our warped view of celebrity. Those issues deserve a full article of their own, but for now I’ll just say the following. As Liam says, there are very important issues in the world, and yet so many people and so many “journalists” seem fixated on the superficial. Everything that a celebrity like Liam does becomes some sort of “news,” and rumors and misinformation are spread everywhere as fact.

People with no lives of their own to some degree live through others, and in the process take away parts of the lives of the celebrities they worship or the celebrities they hate. Liam is a 20 year old “just living life as you did when u were twenty,” but he has no chance to live any sort of life like we did. On the J.D. Salinger documentary aired by PBS earlier this week Philip Seymour Hoffman was talking about celebrity and privacy. He said that when people are born there is an assumed level of privacy and anonymity. You can walk down the street and feel confident of that cloak of privacy. But that privacy is completely ceded by those who become celebrities, and the rest of us don’t really understand or appreciate what that means. We forget that the celebrity remains a real person, just like we are.

The bottom line is sad. There are huge numbers of people out there – gay people especially – who now take it for granted that Liam Payne is a “homophobic douchebag.” And they will carry that perception forever, and have a negative reaction whenever they hear his name. They will do that because getting to the truth of things isn’t important, because rushing to judgment is the new normal. To quote from Shakespeare, “O brave new world…”

Categories: Commentary

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Reply Dennis Stone
12:02 AM on January 25, 2014 
Well, I'm proud to say I've never sent a single tweet in my life! As you know from reading my articles it's not easy for me to express myself in less than 5000 characters, to say nothing of 140!

Though seriously, the site could use someone to do social media type stuff for us. We probably should do Twitter and Facebook likes and the like. In that context Twitter can work. You can tweet when a new story is up, for example.
Hue-Man says...
Twitter is exquisitely designed for today's 3-second attention span - there is no room for subtlety or precision in 140 characters and no time for contemplation. Goldie Hawn's similar
Reply Hue-Man
11:56 PM on January 24, 2014 
Twitter is exquisitely designed for today's 3-second attention span - there is no room for subtlety or precision in 140 characters and no time for contemplation. Goldie Hawn's similar problems with Nigeria's anti-gay laws highlights another major issue - LGBT stories are rarely covered in "mainstream" media. Unless a gay-friendly celebrity follows gay websites on a daily basis, it's easy to be completely unaware of Russian gay propaganda laws, Uganda "kill the gays" bill, Nigeria's persecution of gays, or the daily cash begs from the gay-hating con-artists unless somebody dumps Russian vodka in the streets.

Finally, these kinds of stories drive website revenues and tabloid sales - the more outrageous the better. At the beginning of time when someone's comments were taken out of context and used in print, he can testify that media have total power over the ultimate expression of the message. And as you point out, the morning-after correction doesn't get the same publicity as the initial quote. My only suggestion - work out your priorities and you'll probably find tweeting to complete strangers is near the bottom of your priority list, whether or not you're a celeb!
Reply neyronrose
8:58 PM on January 24, 2014 
"Family values" is so commonly used in the U.S. as a code for homophobia and misogyny, it's easy to think that someone who says that phrase is espousing the views of individual haters or hate groups. If that person hasn't expressed such sentiments before, it's better to question if they knew what those words have come to mean. Apparently this singer didn't (I don't follow the band), and it doesn't seem like he knew of the homophobia and racism expressed by a member of that family. Saying someone has "traditional religious views" comes across to me as excusing that prejudice, though I'm sure you didn't mean it that way. I've heard so much about how "traditional religious views" should be respected while those views are filled with homophobia and misogyny (and often racism) that that strikes a nerve for me. I have the luxury and privilege to be able to wonder if someone who seems to approve of bigotry really knew what they were saying. If it seems that they didn't, I feel that they should simply be educated. If they really were approving of bigotry, then they can be written off. That's how I judge.
Reply Yiannis
7:59 PM on January 24, 2014 
The thing is, the Internet has become so fast, that there's no time for verification or for meditation in a story that breaks. Since early response and a witty (or "witty") comment will get more "clicks" than a long, thought out comment, everything seems to fall either in black or in white, all the in-between grey areas considered by most as fence-sitting, which to their eyes is reprehensible. To end in an optimistic note, the Internet is still young, I hope that the future will allow more people to expect to receive - and to be able to offer verified stories that go beneath the surface of things.