The jury is deliberating on the competing defamation lawsuits between movie stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. I read this article by Travis Andrews in the Washington Post because it promised to explain to me why I should care about the outcome of this case, but I still can’t fathom any relevance to my life.
Admittedly, the world of Hollywood doesn’t much interest me. Prior to accusations that Depp has been abusive, I probably liked him more than the average big box office actor, so I guess I was a bit saddened to learn that he is perhaps a giant asshole. As for Amber Heard, I had to look her up on IMDB to see if she’d been in anything I’ve watched. I had no preexisting opinion of her whatsoever, and I was completely unaware that she and Depp had ever been in any kind of relationship.
So, I have basically no emotional investment in the trial. Still, I followed it just enough to understand the basic outlines of the dispute. Depp says that Heard broke an agreement not to talk publicly about their troubled marriage and badly damaged his reputation. Heard says that Depp’s lawyer wrongly called her a liar and damaged her reputation. Despite the rather narrow scope of the dispute, everyone seems to agree that it’s basically an argument about whether Depp was abusive or not.
That question isn’t technically what the jury is supposed to decide, and the trial wasn’t designed to settle it. It’s a civil case about defamation. I don’t feel like I know Depp did or did not do. But, more importantly, I don’t know how the jury’s decision is important in a larger cultural sense. Depp could win the case on the merits and still be guilty of abuse, and the opposite is also true. Heard could be a genuine victim or a spiteful fabricator, but the outcome of the case won’t decide which is true.
Now, if you’ve decided what the truth is, then I suppose you can have an opinion on whether justice was or was not done. But to really have some wide-ranging significance, the outcome must demonstrate something or change something or lead somewhere new. And all I see is the possibility that Depp might gain enough vindication to land some new roles. A few more major Johnny Depp movies might please some audiences, but it hardly adds up to something I feel I should care about.
On the other side, maybe Heard will be vindicated and then that might provide some comfort or encouragement to women who find themselves in abusive relationships. But for that to be justified, Heard would have to actually be telling the truth, which isn’t something the trial really demonstrated one way or the other.
There’s also the idea that the whole trial is just an act of spite on Depp’s part, and that he wins either way. In this telling, which Andrews seems to buy, Depp brought the case not to win necessarily but to abuse Heard all over again by humiliating her on a very large stage. If accurate, then a favorable decision for Depp would show, once again, how powerful men can get away with anything and that the cards are stacked against victims of abuse. But, of course, that narrative is only valuable if it happens to be true. I am not convinced it’s not true, but it isn’t proven.
From what I see, there are a lot of people who are invested in this case for their own reasons, and who will either be happy or upset about the verdict. But I don’t see it as meriting that kind of personal investment. If the jury thinks Depp was abusive, they’ll probably rule against him, but that’s not what they’re supposed to decide. It’s quite possible that the jury will rule in Depp’s favor simply because they like him more or find him more credible, even if Heard has the better argument that she was defamed. Of course, the opposite is also true.
In the abstract, there is a sense in which justice will or won’t be done, but since the truth is unknown all we’ll have is opinions about how things turned out. I hope justice is done, but I can tell you that I won’t know if it has been done. And I don’t see how that can form the basis for an important cultural event.