Last week Kathy Griffin threatened the lives of millions of Americans with bad comedy. In order to be outrageous and desperately pursue media attention…she posed in a photo holding a phony, bloody, decapitated head resembling Donald Trump. Though she’s been fired from an annual New Year’s CNN gig and promotional work for Squatty Potty, America remains held hostage by this act of bad comedy.
Coming on the heels of this, last Friday, race relations all across America were brought to a boil by Bill Maher’s racially offensive improvisational joke on his show. In response to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse commenting that Maher should visit his state to work in the fields, Maher responded, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n****r. No, it’s a joke!” The riots and racial clashes brought on by this stupid and insensitive “joke” by Maher continue to set the nation aflame.
Or so one might of thought from the firestorms in the MSM and social media ignited by the tasteless, offensive actions of these comedians.
Meanwhile in Portland, following the murder of two men on a train by a white supremacist who was assaulting women of color, a weekend rally of alt-right haters and racists became violent, nooses have been left at a variety of locations in Washington DC as have fraudulent posters claiming to be from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that demand citizens turn in anyone they suspect of being undocumented. And so much more actual hatred and racism is festering under the shadow of Trump. But at least we’re addressing the terrible threat that comedians pose to our nation.
When comedians cross the line in an awful way, they are always publicly attacked, as happened in both of these instances. They pay a price. That’s free speech working in both directions, the right of somebody to express something that others find offensive and people’s right to publicly condemn that person for doing so. That is what America and the 1st Amendment represents, we don’t arrest or stone people who have bad senses of humor (which is why Carrot Top is still alive and free today….wherever he is).
Let’s begin with Kathy Griffin. Without knowing exactly what was in her head, a few reasonable guesses could be made. First of all, it does not seem that her intent was to incite people to storm the White House…make that Mar a Lago…with scythes or guillotines to behead Trump. She did not represent an actual threat to Trump, just to the world of comedy. What she did was not funny. We didn’t like it when the Right Wing portrayed President Obama as being lynched in photos and effigies and principled people don’t rationalize why a wrong is okay if someone on their side does it. Presidents are sometimes horrible but it’s not respectful of the presidents we do like or our democracy to ever applaud portrayals of assassination or violence towards presidents.
In this era of Trump, those who want media attention recognize that if you do something outrageous, especially if it’s offensive, it can break through the chatter and get you the media attention you want (or become president). A number of people in show business are a bit mercenary about getting publicity. They will say and do the most extreme things to get it (sex tapes are so old school now). So it isn’t a stretch to imagine that in the pursuit of publicity and with strong feelings against Trump as so many have today, Griffin came up with this bad idea she thought was clever.
Griffin displayed terrible judgement in her pursuit of both slapping at Trump and clamoring for the publicity spotlight. However, she isn’t a terrorist, an enemy of the state or a hate monger. She is a comedian who wanted to get attention and she got it. Unfortunately for her, it was very negative and cost her some gigs. Just as she had the freedom to express something many found disgusting, those who no longer wanted to be associated with her because of that incident sticking to her, had the freedom to do that as well.
Maher is a different situation mainly because of the improvisational nature and context of his offensive statement. On one hand, Maher seems to identify being occasionally anti-progressive with retaining his status as a non-conformist, independent and rebel. He seems to look for opportunities to be contrary at times to Progressives, even sometimes dissing them and his audience as part of the package. On the other hand, he loves ranting against Muslims, was a practicing misogynist when he hung out at the Playboy Mansion using his celebrity to “get hot chicks” and has used his show to give a platform to some of the most awful people including hate monger Milo Yiannopoulos.
Again, not knowing Maher’s thoughts, he may think that as a mostly Progressive politically comedian, he can follow in the steps of comedians like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin in using offensive words to make a point, Bruce memorably using the “n” word repeatedly in a standup bit attacking the power of the word. Times are different today though and the “n” word has been taken back by the black community, some of whom are comfortable using it casually and others who stand against anyone using it. In any case, it’s hurtful to hear it coming from white people even if it’s not intended as an attack…it is in itself an attack.
What Maher said was an improvisation, comedians jump out on that risky springboard all the time, sometimes it’s brilliant, sometimes it doesn’t work out so well, that’s the risk of improvisation. Had Maher written that joke and performed it, more outrage could be understandable but improvised jokes are a split second impulse, not really subject to time for vetting or aborting because they could be mistakes.
Secondly and most importantly, is context. Maher said this in response to Sasse’s bizarre comment that Maher should come to Nebraska to work in the fields. It seemed like it may have been a casual insult, perhaps aimed at Maher, maybe aimed at urban liberals in general, whether it was intended to be joking about slavery or dissing urban Americans for having non-corn harvesting jobs. Maher’s response was clearly to push back at the slavery-esque tone of Sasse’s words using a slavery reference.
Maher did not seem to be aiming his words at insulting African Americans but at ridiculing Sasse for his invitation that sounded a bit like slavery. But Maher didn’t understand that just using the term IS and insult and degradation of African Americans. He seemed to think that as a Progressive who has advocated for decades for Progressive values including against racism (though one could argue his anti-Muslim stand is a selective exception to opposing bigotry), he had a pass to use the “n” word as a black comedian could have at that moment. Imagine Chris Rock sitting there instead of Maher, had he been invited to come to Nebraska to work in the fields and said the same thing Maher said, it would have likely been seen as clever and edgy.
Maher thought he was exempt from what is an accepted prohibition in American society, white people used (and some still use) the “n” word to denigrate and oppress African Americans so it’s not acceptable to use it period, even in trying to reference history which was what Maher was doing. White people don’t have the same perspective as black people on this word, they may not fully understand how just the use of the word by a white person impacts them, that it can feel like an assault just to hear it. I have no doubt that Maher didn’t intend that but his hubris allowed him to think that because he is on the same side, he can use that term in a joke to ridicule a right wing Republican who made a comment that may have been alluding to slavery.
So should Bill Maher be taken off the air at HBO because of this? This is what some in the black community are advocating and ironically, many in the Right Wing community who are angry about Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes being kicked off of Fox News for their sexism and racism are joining them to get revenge against the Left. At the same time, there is push back from some Progressives who are saying that they will cancel their subscription to HBO if Maher is taken off the network.
As with Griffin, this is about freedom of expression. Those offended by Maher have every right to ask for his removal from HBO, those who don’t see it as an intentionally racist act and accept Maher’s apology have every right to insist Maher should stay and HBO has the right to do what they think best.
Whether Left or Right, it seems that the real determining factor on condemning people for their expression should always be intent. I don’t know how comfortable free speech advocates are with a zero tolerance for specific words no matter the situation, intent or genuine regret expressed after the fact. Should everyone, no matter the specific details surrounding the offensive use of a word, always be ostracized by society? Does that sound like America?
On the other hand, should people be able to get away with horribly offensive expressions under the umbrella of claiming they were said in the pursuit of being humorous? And remain in a position in the media to continue doing so?
Ultimately, these are things that Americans decide in each case and as with actual civil cases, if Americans make their decisions like a jury, considering the facts of a situation first before passing judgement, perhaps the fairest decisions and precedents can be made.