The Alec Baldwin Conundrum

Posted on November 20, 2013 at 1:50 AM

By Dennis Stone

I've been wanting to write about the latest Alec Baldwin kerfuffle since the incident happened. However, I have been unable to pull my thoughts together cogently. The situation is too complex. Ironically, however, the most important aspect of the public reaction has been that it is too simplified.

My uncertainty is the reason that there have been so few new articles from me on the site recently. Every time I sit down to write I intend to dissect the Baldwin conundrum, and every time I hunch over my keyboard I don’t really know how I feel about it. At long last I think I’ve sorted out all of the angles, and I have some things to say.

As I assume everyone knows, the situation began shortly after the end of a dramatic (and undoubtedly stressful) trial in which a woman was found guilty of stalking Baldwin. As they always do in such cases, the paparazzi were relentless and staked out the apartment of Baldwin and his family. As the family was about to leave in their car Baldwin angrily advanced toward one photographer, and then a second. As he finally turned and walked back to his car he was recorded muttering “cocksucking ….” TMZ said the second word was “fag,” while Baldwin claimed he said “fathead.” When I listened to the original recording it sounded very much like the second word had two syllables, and sounded more like “fathead” than “faggot.” However, when I listened to what TMZ posted as an “enhanced” recording, the second word did sound to me like “fag.”

It bothers me the degree to which everyone leaped instantly to the conclusion that he had said “fag,” despite his vigorous denial, and despite the fact that the original recording was anything but clear. TMZ helped out by displaying the words “C**ksucking Fag!” in huge letters as the recording played. If my life depended on being correct I’d say he did actually say “fag,” based on the enhanced recording (and assuming that recording wasn’t doctored), and so for the sake of this analysis let’s assume he did say it.

The big debate seems to surround this basic question: Is Alec Baldwin a homophobic bigot, despite his apparent past support of the gay community? The overwhelming consensus of the gay observers who have commented is a resounding “YES!” A tweet from Dan Savage and a headline on Andrew Sullivan’s blog say exactly the same unambiguous thing: “Alec Baldwin Is a Homophobic Bigot.”

But is he? Sullivan’s case is persuasive on a surface level, relying on the fact that Baldwin has a pattern of saying things that can be interpreted as anti-gay. In addition to this incident there was the Twitter attack on English reporter George Stark, who had claimed that Baldwin’s wife Hilaria was tweeting during James Gandolfini’s funeral. “I’m gonna find you, George Stark,” tweeted Baldwin, “you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck…you…up.”

The third incident cited by Sullivan was another confrontation with a photographer from two years ago. Again enraged, Baldwin seems to have said “I know you got raped by a priest or something.” However, as in the current case, the exact wording isn’t clear. But then Baldwin adds this: “You little girl.”

That’s a damning history. Clearly it’s not enough to simply say that Baldwin has anger issues, and loses control in his meltdowns. The fact that anti-gay sentiments bubble up so frequently means something.

At this point I want to interject some thoughts about the nature of the word “cocksucker” as an anti-gay slur. That is not the clear-cut case of obvious homophobia that the overwhelming majority of gay observers are making it out to be. I don’t recall ever hearing the words “fag” or “faggot” tossed around as epithets when I was growing up. That seems really odd, but it’s true, perhaps due to the cloistered nature of our rural farming community in the pre-internet world. We just weren’t exposed to the concept of homosexuality in that environment, and so homosexual slurs were not part of our lexicon. But “cocksucker” was common. As were “motherfucker,” “bastard,” “asshole,” etc. No one ever thought of the idea of guys sucking dicks when we called someone a “cocksucker.” Just as no one was thinking of someone having relations with his mother when he was called a “motherfucker.”

Those terms simply became part of our swear word library, having no individual meaning beyond being useful and interchangeable ways of hurling invective. Alec Baldwin grew up roughly in that same era. It’s thoroughly believable that he could use that word without it having in his brain any conscious connection to gay people. I know that’s true because that’s how it was with me and the guys I grew up with.

So if that were the only word at issue I’d be giving Baldwin a pass on the basis of what I just explained. But he has a lot of other baggage not so easily explained. So he’s still clearly a homophobic bigot, right? Sullivan talks about one of his readers who made the claim that Baldwin was simply using language that he calculated would cause the most hurt, would be the most effective weapon. Sullivan says this: “That means he has to buy into the logic of the stigma in order to wield it as a weapon. What he’s implicitly asserting, by choosing those words, is that a man who sucks another man’s cock is a terrible thing to be. It’s a classic form of demonizing gay sexuality.”

That’s the crux of Sullivan’s case, and the implicit logical underpinning of all those calling for Baldwin’s head. There’s just one problem. Sullvan’s contention is simply not valid on a psychological basis. It is not true that Baldwin “has to buy into the logic of the stigma” when he is “choosing those words.” In fact, I don’t think he is overtly buying into that logic. Rather, one of two things is happening.

Keep in mind that Baldwin says these things during fits of rage, when he in essence loses control. When rage takes over thought departs. My father was a sweet and wonderful man who had an odd tendency to lose control when pushed too far in a certain direction, usually when he felt attacked in some way. Those incidents – which we kids called his “loonies” - were rare, but they led him to say things that he would never say otherwise, that he clearly didn’t mean, and that he was embarrassed about later. People say that anger brings out a person’s true feelings. With some people that’s perhaps true, but with others it brings out inchoate, irrational utterances that at their core are more defense mechanisms than attacks.

Alec Baldwin clearly has anger and self-control issues, and it’s entirely possible that when his rage takes over he sub-consciously reverts to a mindset and method of expressing invective that harkens back to his developmental years. He doesn’t have to buy into the logic at all, he just has to have been raised in an environment where that type of language was the norm.

It’s also possible that he consciously and genuinely supports gay people and their rights, but buried within his psyche are misgivings or ambiguities or residual discomfort with the idea of two guys having sex. Don’t underestimate the power of religious dogma – more powerful during Baldwin’s formative years than today – or the power of social conditioning. We have a LOT of strong and genuine allies who harbor a squeamishness or a Puritanism that they don’t dare verbalize. Residual feelings of that kind truly are natural. We like to think that people raised in earlier eras can just logically look at the situation, decide that gay people deserve equal rights and equal respect, and then just eliminate their years of social conditioning. It just doesn’t work that way. And, of course, those residual feelings can bubble to the surface when rage eliminates conscious and rational thought.

It is not my goal to defend Alec Baldwin. My goal is to defend the concept of truth, fairness, and multi-dimensional thought. All of those things are threatened by the non-thinking one-dimensional rush to judgment we have seen. I deeply respect Andrew Sullivan for his independent thought, his willingness to go his own way. But in this case he seems to be violating that spirit. Not because he disagrees with me, but because he is expecting – almost DEMANDING – that all good gays get on board with him and see things his way. He’s calling for Rachel Maddow and the other gays on MSNBC to denounce Baldwin as he has done. They apparently don’t have the freedom to analyze the situation as I have and come to an alternate conclusion.

Amazingly, Sullivan and others have stated that they are dismayed that Baldwin is getting a “pass” in this case because of his liberal leanings. That strikes me as rather bizarre since there has been overwhelming condemnation from gay and liberal quarters, with only a few brave souls giving him any benefit of the doubt. On message boards Baldwin is routinely being called “evil,” one of the world’s worst people, a bigot, a homophobe, etc. Most of the voices actually defending him seem to be coming from people in the middle. On the gay side, the hordes are massing, rocks in hand, with Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage and most of the rest of the gay opinion makers at their side.

For my part I’m left uncertain. As I said before, if my life depended on being right I’d say he said “fag,” though it’s not a certainty. But if my life depended on being right, I’d also say that he is a genuine ally and consciously doesn’t harbor animus toward gay people. His rages reveal either a mindset carried over from his youth, or a residue of uncertainty and squeamishness resulting from years of social conditioning. A residue that many other allies carry with them, but never reveal because they aren’t subject to attacks of blind rage.

One thing I do know. Baldwin has been a strong gay ally for many, many years. That is simply a fact. One can’t make a logical case that all of that is nothing more than a sham, that he has somehow been faking it to curry favor. The question is whether he's a FULL ally deep in his soul, or whether he simply WANTS to be a full ally, or thinks he SHOULD be, but he isn't there. The world isn't two dimensional: evil homophobes and pure-as-snow allies. As with the Kinsey scale there's a range. People can believe in gay equality and yet harbor buried anti-gay feelings, perhaps not ever coming to the surface except in fits of rage.

I’m OK with being uncertain about Alec Baldwin. I wish Andrew Sullivan and others were OK with being uncertain as well.

Categories: Commentary

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Reply Ulysses Dietz
6:29 AM on November 25, 2013 
Thanks for this reasoned response, Dennis. We have far worse problems than Alec Baldwin. Plenty of straight allies harbor doubts, particularly men who lean toward hyper-masculinity and aggression. Baldwin might not be someone I'd invite to dinner, because he is annoying and unable to control his language - but I've never thought he was an enemy. Ambivalence doesn't raise alarms in me - outright hostility and anti-gay behavior (not words) are what we should worry about.
Reply PaulR
1:25 PM on November 22, 2013 
Unlike a lot of people I do think it matters that Baldwin has been a marriage equality supporter (and a gay rights supporter generally). I noticed that Andrew Sullivan pretty much made no distinction between guys like Baldwin, who say something unacceptable, and people who vote and argue against gay marriage, or who express overt hatred. To him Baldwin is lumped in with Bryan Fischer and Pat Robertson. I just don't get that.
Reply Hue-Man
8:06 AM on November 20, 2013 
I'll start with my own bias - I don't swear and haven't sworn in more than half a century. I know how weird that is but once you get on a roll, you realize how unnecessary it is! I know all the words and their combinations and don't feel superior to those who choose to pepper their speech with obscenities. Having listened to my 6 year-old godson rattle off all the swear words - without understanding what any of them meant - tells me that at a certain point they become part of the normal speech pattern of many people, filler words that have no meaning unless challenged.

I absolutely agree that it is a sign of loss of control. That has been my opinion of Baldwin which has been severely negative since April, 2007, when TMZ reported on his voice-mail: "An enraged Alec Baldwin unleashed a volcanic tirade of threats and insults on his 11-year-old daughter, Ireland,...." IMHO, what he said or didn't say this time is irrelevant in this context - the switch flips and the invective flows whether homophobic, racist, misogynist, or any other way in which to demean the target. This is not a pass but a wish that he would work on his obvious anger issues. (Sullivan is grand-standing by attacking a hard left liberal with whom he completely disagrees on almost every issue.)

What worries me more are the so-called christians who persecute LGBT people by encouraging laws protecting children from "gay propaganda". This is truly obscene even if they don't curse and swear.