It’s a pretty old story at this point, but it’s a good one: when Do the Right Thing premiered in 1989, a lot of film critics expressed concern that it would inspire black people to riot. The film follows a day in the life of the residents of a racially-mixed but largely black neighbourhood in Brooklyn that culminates in the murder of a black man, Radio Raheem, by the police. The police came because of a fight between Radio Raheem and the owner of the local pizzeria, Sal, so the onlookers who saw the murder blame him. One resident, Da Mayor, tries to persuade the crowd to walk away, but Sal’s employee, Mookie, played by director Spike Lee, throws a bin through the window. The crowd runs into the pizzeria and smashes up the furniture. One of Radio Raheem’s friends sets it on fire. It’s one of my favourite setpieces in the history of cinema and it terrified several white critics at the time.
It should go without saying that none of those fears were borne out. No riots broke out at screenings of Do the Right Thing. And that’s why the story lingers. It’s a story about the racism of white critics, a nice shorthand explanation of how criticism itself is distorted when the field is dominated by people from a narrow set of backgrounds, whether the skew is racial, gendered or economic. But I think it’s worth recognising that when those critics wet themselves over the possibility of a film inspiring real riots, they weren’t only racist. They were also wrong. And not just wrong because riots didn’t occur, but wrong because riots were never going to occur. Sometimes people have rioted about films, like The Birth of a Nation, The Rules of the Game or Padmaavat, a Bollywood epic from a couple of years ago that enraged Hindu nationalists and Rajput caste extremists who heard – incorrectly – that it portrayed sex between a Muslim king and a Rajput queen, among other things. But there is no evidence in the history of film that exposure to a movie’s content, as opposed to the mere fact of its existence, has ever inspired anyone to riot. In fact, everyone who has ever promoted panic about art causing violence of any kind has been wrong. They were wrong about Do the Right Thing. They were wrong about Doom and Grand Theft Auto and every other video game. They were wrong about comic books and “video nasties” and Eminem.
They were wrong about Joker.
Joker was one of the most talked-about films of last year. Of the last decade, really. I didn’t see it until near the end of its theatrical run in Ireland and I lost count of the family members – ages sixteen to fifty-six, male and female, normie and extremely online – who came up to me at gatherings just to ask if I’d seen Joker yet and insist I absolutely had to see it when I said I hadn’t got round to it yet. I don’t come from a family of cinephiles either, but it felt like all my cousins, half my aunts and a good three of my uncles had seen it and they all thought it was great. They were right. I made so much fun of the premise of Joker – a loose reimagining of the character as a mentally-ill failed comedian called Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) inspired by Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – for so long prior to its release. Partly because “superhero versions of classic films” is literally a private joke I used to have with myself, imagining The Day the Earth Stood Still, but with Superman and stuff like that, but mostly because I didn’t think a studio comic book movie about the Joker in the style of Scorsese could possibly be good in an age where Scorsese himself was writing op-eds in the New York Times explaining how the production of modern franchise blockbusters is so divorced from the art of filmmaking they don’t meaningfully qualify as cinema.
But it’s a great film, one I thought was pretty good when I saw it and that just grows on me more and more with time. I like how it’s a proper character study, where social themes only matter to the extent they intersect with the protagonist’s life, rather than the character existing as a vehicle for social themes. Joaquin Phoenix is incredible as Arthur and all his awards are richly deserved even though I would have given them to Adam Driver. I love its “seventies gothic” aesthetic and how it stitches the established visual vocabulary of New York in the 1970s together to portray Gotham as a sort of dark fantasia of the city on the edge of chaos. It has a great supporting cast, it’s both funny and affecting, and Marc Maron was in it for like ten seconds, then used all his media appearances for it to promote Sword of Truth, the weird comedy film he made with his partner, Lynn Shelton. What’s not to love?
Well, the potential for mass violence, apparently.
The whole thing has been memory-holed now, like pretty much all media failures these days, but last year, there was a moral panic about Joker causing violence. Specifically, concerns were raised – including in reviews of the film – about the film inspiring mass shootings or other attacks by incel killers. For those blissfully unaware, incels (involuntary celibates) are a largely online subculture of men whose identity is built around their own perceived inability to find romantic or sexual partners and a dense mythology to explain that perceived inability that has emerged from the ecosystem of male supremacy extremists over the past several years.1 Several acts of mass murder, including the 2014 Isla Vista killings, the 2018 Toronto van attack and the 2018 yoga studio shooting in Tallahasseee, were committed by incels, and incel ideology has been a component of the beliefs of other far-right murderers. Joker is not about an incel killer, or even a man fitting the profile of an incel killer, but there is a fairly minor subplot about protagonist Arthur’s infatuation with his neighbour, so if you tilt your head and squint, it actually still doesn’t look like a film about an incel killer. Not that it matters: incels don’t need a fictional version of themselves to emulate or idolise when they have Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger, who is essentially their patron saint. I also don’t think it’s particularly useful, when thinking about moral panics, to focus overmuch on their target, given moral panics are definitionally not based in reality. But it is kind of fascinating to read reviews like David Ehrlich’s in IndieWire and see the strain people put themselves through to make their seemingly preloaded paranoia fit a film that doesn’t actually do what they say.
Take, for example, Ehrlich’s contention that while The King of Comedy “was about a talentless man who was convinced that he was special”, Joker “is about a talented man who swallows the red pill and becomes convinced that nobody is”. I have no idea what movie Ehrlich saw, but that’s not what happens in Joker. The “red pill” is the name given by incels and other male supremacy extremists to describe their worldview (named for the famous scene in The Matrix), but there’s nothing ideological about what Arthur does in the film. In fact, the film goes out of its way to make clear he has no coherent beliefs or philosophy motivating him. He doesn’t even have a plan, really. Arthur’s first two kills are in self-defense, with a gun someone else insisted he carry against his better judgement. Everyone else he kills out of personal vengeance: the third train attacker, his abusive mother, a former co-worker who mistreated him and then a TV host who made fun of him. Explaining that Arthur didn’t take the red pill is like trying to explain that Dumbo didn’t join the Luftwaffe: it just didn’t happen and I don’t know why we’re talking about it. But still Ehrlich tries to euphemise this square peg into a round hole. Note also that he never actually comes out and says “I fear this will cause violence”. Like most reviewers, he’s self-aware enough to express himself through implication rather than explicitly make a claim he could later be criticised for. But the insinuation in his talk of “lonely, creatively impotent white men” and his ominous declaration that Joker is “good enough to be dangerous” is pretty transparent. By the end, he’s whipped himself into such a fervour that he’s declaring the film will “turn the world upside down and make us all hysterical in the process”. It’s probably the silliest of these reviews in tone, but it’s pretty representative in content.
Joker premiered in Venice in late August last year, but didn’t hit cinemas until over a month later, on the 4th of October. Especially after it screened at TIFF on the 9th of September, prompting more pearl-clutching reviews, its release was awaited with a mix of anxious trepidation and what I can only describe as morbid excitement at the possibility that fears of incel violence would be validated. News that the FBI was apparently concerned about attacks was breathlessly reported without anyone stopping to (1) notice its description of incel affinity for the Joker – they allegedly “idolize the Joker… as a man who must pretend to be happy, but eventually fights back against bullies” – does not describe the Joker at all or (2) ponder even for a second whether the FBI might be at all unreliable as a source given its extensive history of manufacturing terrorist threats, up to and including planning attacks and entrapping people into participating in them. Also, the media’s track record on this very specific topic – links between the Joker and mass shooters – is pretty spotty as is. People still believe James Holmes, perpetrator of the 2012 Aurora shooting, identified himself as the Joker or was otherwise inspired by the character in some way because the lying, racist, authoritarian NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said so, and people just took his word for it, even though he was not involved in the case at all (it would be weird if he was, given Aurora is in Colorado) and everyone involved in the case has said consistently, for years, that the shooting had nothing to do with the Joker and they’re all very pissed about people saying otherwise. Holmes only shot up a screening of The Dark Knight Rises because it was a busy movie and he wanted to kill lots of people. But instead of learning from that mistake and not immediately trusting law enforcement to convey accurate information about whether the Joker could plausibly inspire mass shootings, Kelly’s totally fabricated assertion was dug right back up and used to legitimise this new moral panic.
When opening weekend rolled around, there was, of course, no violence. There was never going to be any violence. Or, at least, no violence caused by the film. I’ll admit, to my chagrin, I was a little worried about the possibility of violence myself, not due to the film, but because I feared the moral panic itself would give an incel killer already planning an attack the idea to shoot up a screening. (There is a recognised phenomenon, exemplified by the 2019 Christchurch shootings, of modern far-right shooters deliberately trolling the media as part of their attacks.) More concretely, the panic resulted in armed police presence at screenings across America, including undercover cops in New York theatres. Or, to put it another way, people in the media fanned the flames of fear over individual psychos with guns shooting up cinemas so much that whole teams of psychos with guns were dispatched to the cinemas.
But, again, time is on my side here. I know the fears were overblown because I’m in the future. How were those who feared violence before the film came out supposed to know they had no cause for worry? I could gesture again to, like, the entire span of human history, but inductive reasoning is not a particularly useful way to think about people. Unprecedented events happen all the time. People are constantly doing things for the first time. I may not be inclined to look back on everyone who’s ever started or joined a moral panic about art and think “sure, they were wrong, but that’s because they were dumb, whereas I am very smart”, but it only takes one person with a weapon to ruin art’s perfect track record of not inspiring murder. No, the reason it was foolish for people to panic about Joker causing an outbreak of incel attacks is that art doesn’t work that way.
I think, on a basic level, that we all actually understand this because we all consume art all the time without it inspiring us to do much of anything. It’s certainly true that the media environment in which we live and the sum of all the media we consume informs our point of view and even our actions. But that’s not the same thing as saying any individual work of art has the power to cause us to do things. The human mind is far too complex and busy for two hours of Joaquin Phoenix being sad and killing people to have any meaningful long-term impact on how we think, let alone how we behave, especially given that, even within that part of our brain devoted to our impressions of art, it’s gonna be jockeying for position with literally every other work of art we’ve ever experienced. The problem seems to be an inability, or an unwillingness, to generalise from our own experience of being a human, to imagine others as having interior lives as rich, complicated and nuanced as ours. It goes without saying that there’s no comparison in a material sense between the institutional racism in film criticism that caused some critics to decry Do the Right Thing, rooted in centuries of ongoing oppression, and the mere stupidity of film critics that decried Joker, rooted in their being personally stupid. But, psychologically, critics imagining young, disaffected white men as a sleeper army of incel killers who just need Joker to flip their switches is not fundamentally much different from critics imagining a black audience in a screening of Do the Right Thing as a riot waiting to happen. Either way, it flows from our failure to see other people as human. Not (or not always, at least) in the way bigots see the objects of their bigotry as subhuman, but in the basic sense that if we do not make an active effort to conceive of other people as human in the same way that we are human, our natural tendency is not to credit them with the complexity that we have. It’s why I am forgetful through no fault of my own, but you’re forgetful because you don’t make an effort.
What’s most baffling to me looking back is that the largely liberal moral panic about Joker occurred at virtually the exact same time as two conservative moral panics about art that had way less uptake from conservatives writ large, but got way more mockery and criticism in the media, often from the same voices hyping up fears about incel killers in clown masks. The first, an attempt by Trump to beat the long-decayed horse of blaming gun violence on video games, was an immediate failure that nevertheless generated tons of press. But his attack on then-unreleased horror-comedy movie The Hunt was a spectacular success. Universal pulled it from theatres before anyone, even critics, had a chance to see it, less than 24 hours after Trump tweeted about it. The official reason given was the recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio – incidentally, the events Trump was blaming on video games – but it was obvious to anyone with more than a single functional synapse that they got spooked by Trump’s unexpected attack. (Conservatives had interpreted elements of the marketing to imply the film was about heroic liberal elites hunting Trump voters for sport. It is impossible to overstate just how ironic that is once you’ve seen the film.) It was really something watching some of the same people turn around and start or encourage an equally dumb panic about Joker just a couple of weeks later. In Folk Devils and Moral Panics, first published in 1972, Stanley Cohen writes: “For conservatives, the media glamorize crime, trivialize public insecurities and undermine moral authority; for liberals, the media exaggerate the risks of crime and whip up moral panics to vindicate an unjust and authoritarian crime control policy.” That was a somewhat simplistic division in 1972: less than twenty years earlier, it was progressive Democrat Estes Kefauver who chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that turned the moral panic over comic books into national news and led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority. It was even more simplistic by its third edition in 2003, when liberals had been complicit in the vilification of gangsta rap for over a decade.
But now? It feels like it was beamed from another universe. Concern about art glamorising immoral behaviour (if not necessarily “crime”, strictly defined) is primarily a liberal issue, deeply embedded in the conventions of contemporary criticism. It’s probably the most exhausting thing about criticism in the last decade. As Gretchen Felker-Martin writes in “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (And Neither Can You)”:
“The idea that by depicting an act an artist is endorsing that act seems baked into the minds of certain left-leaning sets of younger people, particularly teenagers and early twentysomethings. That they have such deep concern for the safety and social equality of their traumatized peers and the traumatized in their own ranks can only be admirable, but more often than not the form it takes is mass harassment and scapegoating targeting not institutions or major studios but independent creators, many of them marginalized themselves. If the whole thing sounds, with its zeal for censorship and its self-righteous hate campaigns against the disenfranchised, a little like the American Family Association with a glittery coat of paint, well, that’s kind of what it is.”
The problem has only grown more pronounced as the obliteration of staff positions for critics at major publications and their replacement with an army of starving freelancers has skewed the age of critics younger and their politics more left-wing. That isn’t to say the roles have reversed and that conservatives have become free speech warriors or whatever. That rhetorical shift by conservatives certainly played a part in prompting liberals to abandon their positive commitment to free speech in favour of a laissez-faire attitude where only what speech can survive on the market deserves to be protected. Conservatives used free speech insincerely as a tool to defend themselves from criticism and liberals responded by narrowing the scope of what’s protected by free speech so they could go “nuh-uh” at conservatives. But that rhetorical shift was just that: rhetorical. Conservatives are still as opposed to free speech as ever, just as eager to censor and destroy art that dissents from their point of view. If liberals are not quite at their level yet, that’s honestly its own kind of absurdity. Both sides believe that art can corrupt morals and cause violent, antisocial behaviour, but only conservatives take the next step, as with The Hunt, and demand that “dangerous” art not be made available to the masses. The liberal position, exemplified by Joker, is far more ridiculous: darkly insinuate some work of art will almost certainly cause people to die, but don’t do anything about it except say so in public and possibly harass its creator online. I don’t know if it’s some vestigial free speech instinct they just can’t shake or if some people just love saying “I told you so” more than human life, but while I don’t want liberals to simply become conservatives on free speech, obviously, it would genuinely make a lot more sense.
I kind of hoped the Joker panic coming so soon after The Hunt might prompt some reflection in the liberal world of cultural criticism. I hoped people might notice that even if only one explicitly calls for censorship, whereas the other merely implies it, the thoughts are shaped the same. That they grow from the same poisoned soil: the insane belief that the human mind can be commandeered at any moment by the rogue notions of dangerous art. It reminds me of the climax of Joker, when Murray tries to blame Arthur for the growing unrest in the streets. Arthur responds: “Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement?” He’s right. We’ve seen how little Arthur contributed to the movement that bears his likeness. Unlike Murray, the national broadcasting icon ensconced behind his desk, we’ve seen the world through Arthur’s eyes. We’ve seen all the reasons people have to be furious at the order of things. We’ve seen that they were furious long before Arthur shot the Wall Street douchebags. We know they didn’t need Arthur to tell them what to do, that he didn’t tell them what to do, that he couldn’t if he tried. We understand that symbols don’t have that much power. We understand he just gave people a mask to wear and that blaming him for the violence in the streets is like blaming a snowflake for an avalanche.
Or, at least, we should.