Topical writing doesn’t age well, especially on the internet, where the 24 hour news cycle is accelerated to 24 seconds. That’s why I don’t write much of that stuff. Better to stick to the long game–evergreen topics like music, memoir, and writing about writing.
The leaves never fall from outrage, either, though what we choose to be outraged about certainly morphs over time. The idea that the President of the United States of America might have Russian ties would have infuriated the adults of my childhood, for example, as would those now ubiquitous stop light cameras. The computer machines collecting data about who I am, where I go, what I like, who I talk to, what I buy, etc.? Forget about it. The Russkies and the Surveillance State were universal topics of outrage when I was a kid.
But these days outrage is a moving target. The people who usually grow apoplectic at even the hint of law enforcement criticism today find themselves enraged by the FBI, while the folks who have alleged for years that the FBI is corrupt now run to the bureau’s defense. The patriots who lost their minds when former presidents propped their feet on Oval Office furniture are today outraged by any insinuation that the current president’s behavior is beneath the dignity of the office. Modern outrage often is a fun house mirror, not much more than an entertaining novelty reflecting at best a distorted reality and at worst a grotesque reversal of truth.
And it’s cheap, too–it comes and goes so quickly that if you blink you might miss it. So in case you weren’t paying attention, last week Roseanne Barr referred to former White House staffer Valerie Jarrett as a “child of the Muslim Brotherhood and ‘Planet of the Apes.'” The outraged responses were both immediate and contradictory: Roseanne was either a blatant racist or another victim of the intolerant snowflake culture that can’t take a joke.
Just a couple of days later over on basic cable, Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt,” and the outrage was precisely the same but inverted 180 degrees. Roseanne’s “take a joke” supporters now clutched at their pearls while Bee’s advocates rolled their eyes and implored them to stop being such delicate little snowflakes.
On their surfaces, these two stories represent opposing sides of one bipartisan coin: If you wear a red shirt, Roseanne was right and Bee was wrong; if your shirt is blue, flip the coin. Ain’t fun house mirrors a blast?
But neither story and its resulting outrage is as straightforward as a tossed coin. Each has a directly injured party, Ivanka Trump and Valerie Jarrett, to whom the comedians owe apologies, so that’s easy enough. There are indirectly injured parties, too, among whom I do not count myself. I might congratulate myself for remaining so speech tolerant, but I’m neither a woman who has been called a cunt countless times over the years, nor am I black person who has had to shrug off a million racist stereotypes tossed carelessly around as “humor.”
My commentary echoes from the press box, far removed from the action on the field. If you personally felt the sting from the last week in outrage, all of this feels much different to you. I get that, but at the risk of further angering you, here are six observations from the safety and comfort of the press box:
1) This isn’t a free speech issue. The First Amendment is unambiguous on this point: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” ABC cancelled Roseanne, not Congress, and while Donald Trump’s calls for TBS to cancel Full Frontal With Samantha Bee tread much closer to the line, his trollish statements do not constitute Congressional action, either.
2) But it is an asshole issue. People have been complaining about the coarsening of American culture since Colonial times, and while we survived bare ankles without plunging into anarchy the Trump era has certainly triggered a particularly egregious case of coarse behavior. I’m certainly no Ms. Manners–in fact, until recently I thought etiquette was a lawn game played with wooden balls and mallets–but I don’t go out of my way to hurt people’s feelings. Neither do you, probably, but both Roseanne and Bee overtly intended to offend. When we behave in an insulting manner, we should not be startled when people are insulted, and the bigger our audience the more people we should expect to offend.
3) I don’t know whether Roseanne is a blatant racist, and unless you know her personally neither do you. Based on the available evidence, the case that one could argue with the highest probability of a favorable verdict is that she is a rude, obnoxious dullard who might be overtly racist but is unarguably clueless regarding harmful and deeply entrenched racial tropes. If that’s the case, she is not alone. That is a very pervasive problem in American culture, and if you don’t believe me take a look in your pantry, where the grinning faces of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus, the Cream of Wheat man, still linger in the 21st century.
4) Both examples from last week represent lazy, pandering “humor.” Both Roseanne and Bee (and Bee’s writing staff) know their audiences. For one, slamming a former Obama staffer is an easy way to garner Twitter likes, and for the other calling the sitting president’s daughter and advisor a feckless cunt is an easy laugh. Even the structure of Bee’s joke is a tired cliche at this point. Match a five dollar adjective with a vulgarity and look, Ma, edgy humor! Try it for yourself by mixing and matching the following:
- Boisterous Knob Gobbler
- Inane Twat Waffle
- Belligerent Ass Muncher
- Syphilitic Ball Fondler
- Recalcitrant Pussy Grabber
5) But lazy and pandering is where the comparison ends. Strip away the shock and awe from both “jokes,” and Bee called Ivanka an irresponsible woman who lacks character. Roseanne’s comment rendered Jarrett both a terrorist and an ape. Equating the two is a bit like suggesting that a slap to the face and carpet bombing are the same because both are violent.
6) Neither is defensible, both should be defended. Both women are perfectly entitled to say whatever they wish, but as was pointed out several times during the last week in outrage, that does not mean that their speech should be impervious to consequences. If advertisers want to pull their dollars from Bee’s show, that’s entirely up to them. Hopefully the comedian, her staff, and the show’s production company feel that’s an even trade for being “edgy.” Similarly, if ABC chooses to cancel Roseanne that’s their business.
We should vigorously defend our right to say anything we wish no matter how abhorrent, and we should vigorously defend our right to be offended by abhorrent statements. Nobody said living in a free society wasn’t without its complications.
Outrage is a good thing. It’s the white blood cells of a culture’s immune system. Our challenge is to direct that outrage toward the things that really matter, and there’s plenty of those these days. If you’re getting bogged down in whether a gas station dared not to fly the American flag or that an official form didn’t use gender neutral pronouns, you’re diluting the disease fighting power of those white blood cells. When everything is outrageous, nothing is outrageous.
So what are the right things to get outraged about? I don’t know. I’m just another edgy, obstreperous dick hole blathering from the press box about a current event that was past its sell by date before I even started typing.