Presuming Bad Faith Is No Way to Argue

Judd Apatow (image via Flickr user Canadian Film Centre)
May 27, 2014

Of all the bad habits that permeate our culture of permanent grievance and perpetual argumentation, the one I find most frustrating is the constant presumption of bad faith. On the one hand, I get it: If you don't feel like having an argument it's easier to dismiss your opponent as evil or morally blighted. On the other, it's deeply corrosive to the very concept of rational, good-faith discussion.

I am airing this complaint because of the following tweet from Judd Apatow, which came in response to this essay about Hollywood culture and the UCSB shooting by Ann Hornaday:

Apatow later suggested Hornaday was just trying to make some money for her corporate overlords:

Honestly, I get why Apatow and Seth Rogen were upset! Here's Hornaday:

As Rodger bemoaned his life of "loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desire" and arrogantly announced that he would now prove his own status as "the true alpha male," he unwittingly expressed the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA. For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny). Rodger’s rampage may be a function of his own profound distress, but it also shows how a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike.

How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like "Neighbors" and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of "sex and fun and pleasure"? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, "It’s not fair"?

I generally like Hornaday's writing, but to include Judd Apatow in this list of offenders strikes me as, frankly, kind of bizarre. Apatow's body of work, especially as a director, is all about the tough choices adulthood entails. Yes, the shlubby guy gets the girl at the end of 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but only after putting away childish things. And both Steve Carell and Seth Rogen's characters spend far more of that movie being awkwardly rejected than they do engaging in sexy fun time. Funny People is about a guy who very explicitly doesn't get the girl despite his fame and fortune. It's about a guy who rejects the emptiness of having sex with hot girls in his pool and yearns for a family life but can't have it because of the poor choices he has made. This Is 40 is, similarly, about the various compromises we make and the difficulty of keeping it together in the face of financial strain and emotional pressure.

It's worth noting, as  well, that these films have relatively well developed female characters who struggle with professional and personal commitments, who have needs and desires and hopes and dreams all of their own. The idea that Apatow has put together childish adolescent fantasies in the vein of Revenge of the Nerds or American Pie strikes me as a deep, deep misreading of his body of work.

And yet, Apatow's response is wanting. He doesn't bother defending his films or countering any of the arguments in Hornaday's essay. Instead, he simply states that a film writer writing about films in the wake of a tragedy with undeniable ties to Hollywood is trying to "promote herself" by piggybacking on the shooting to promulgate her "idiotic thoughts." He implicitly suggests she is arguing something she doesn't believe in order to generate page views (and thus ad revenue) for the Washington Post.

Again, I think Hornaday's way off base here. But accusing her of callously promoting herself for committing the crime of doing her job and contributing to the conversation is a rather terrible way of rebutting her argument. It is, at best, thin-skinned whinging. And it is, at worst, a tacit admission that she's right.

Update: Correction: Grown Ups was not directed by Judd Apatow. I meant Funny People. This is doubly embarrassing because my review of Funny People is blurbed on the Blu-ray cover. Apologies, all.