“When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?”
That’s a question comedian Bill Maher poses in his recent New York Times Op-Ed. Headlined “Please Stop Apologizing”, the host of HBO’s Real Time openly wonders why people are so easily offended by comments made by public figures.
The piece begins with the recent non-story about a lame joke Robert De Niro made about three of the wives of the Republican candidates at a Democratic Party fundraiser (“Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?”).
Newt Gingrich made a big stink about it (because the fatheaded former House Speaker is ironically very thin skinned and apparently speaks for his latest wife) and De Niro has since issued a statement that thankfully doesn’t come close to being an apology (which would be ridiculous) but nonetheless underscores the actor’s intent “not to offend”. (If Gingrich was going to be super upset about a super tame De Niro joke, you’d think the two-time Academy Award winner would’ve come up with something hilariously biting instead of the groaner he went with. By the way, when Piers Morgan played the joke to Ann Romney, the wife of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, she laughed, so how offensive could the joke have actually been?)
This non-event leads to Maher’s question. But just before he poses it, he sarcastically writes this, in relation to the aftermath of the De Niro joke:
“So, as these things go, even if the terrible damage can never be undone, at least the healing can begin. And we can move on to the next time we choose sides and pretend to be outraged about nothing.”
And therein lies the problem with his thesis. As he goes on to list numerous recent examples of people and things that have drawn the ire of the public in the last year as well as offering another political anecdote involving something President Obama advisor David Axelrod said about Mitt Romney’s ad campaign in Illinois, he lumps it all under one of his favourite phrases: “fake outrage”.
By giving equal weight to every example he lists, he creates the illusion that they’re all the same thing, that someone said or did something that wasn’t actually offensive and the backlash that followed was completely manufactured and politically motivated.
But let’s just look at one of these examples he cites. Last June, Kevin Rogers, a gay citizen, went to a Tracy Morgan gig and heard the 30 Rock star go on a scary, completely unfunny anti-gay rant. Outraged by this part of the show (which he had been enjoying up to that point), Rogers wrote a public note on Facebook that soon got picked up by the media. (Sadly, no audio or video has ever surfaced about the infamous moment in question, even though no one has successfully disputed what Rogers claimed.)
According to Rogers on a comment on his own piece, Morgan’s son, who was at the show and was unfortunately the focal point of one of his dad’s awful comments, told the comedian that “he shouldn’t have said what he did” (I’m quoting from Rogers’ paraphrase). Morgan ended up publicly apologizing through a released statement (he also apologized to Rogers in person) and, also according to Rogers, personally contacted GLAAD, who criticized his remarks, to find out what he could do to make peace with the gay community. He later met with gay victims of bullying as well as gay homeless teens and expressed his support for gay marriage.
Tina Fey, who created 30 Rock and the part of Tracy Jordan specifically for her former SNL colleague, released her own public statement on the matter, stating that she found Morgan’s remarks “disturbing”. Wanda Sykes, a fellow comedian who happens to be a lesbian, wasn’t happy about it either. She expressed her disappointment through her official Twitter account. They weren’t the only ones who were upset but you get the idea.
In his Times Op-Ed, Maher never singles out anything Morgan said that night to further his claim that it was yet another example of how “we pretend to be outraged over nothing”. There’s no mention at all about how Morgan proclaimed that gays being born this way (referencing Lady Gaga’s song) was “bullshit” and “a choice” and that “God don’t make no mistakes”, directly inferring that being gay, to use Laura Schlessinger’s awful phrase (which he didn’t use), is “a biological error”.
No mention of Morgan suggesting that he would stab his own son if he told him he was gay, that gay people should stop being “pussies” when they’re being bullied (because being bullied is “insignificant”, don’t you know, and they should just kick ass when they’re being picked on), and that if gays are upset by his comments he didn’t care because, as Rogers noted in his Facebook piece, “if they can take a fucking dick up their ass…they can take a fucking joke.”.
Hilarious, right Bill? Yeah, nothing outrageous about those comments. At. All.
Then, with a straight face, Maher proposes a “National Day of No Outrage” where once a year, “you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.”.
“If that doesn’t work,” he continues, “what about this: If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth.”
So, by that logic, if someone says something libellous, slanderous or simply dangerous, for example, we shouldn’t criticize the person for what they said? We should just let offensive dishonesty go uncorrected and undocumented?
Let’s go back to Tracy Morgan for a second. What did Maher say about him last June?
“Look, I mean, was it the smartest thing to say? No. But it was a joke. America, especially liberals, have this pie-in-the-sky idea that, somehow, all minorities are sympathetic to each other, so how could a black guy say something about gays? Shouldn’t they both know about oppression?”
Relax, America. The social commentator Morgan was just doing dumb material. No biggie. Nothing so terrible to get all your uptight panties in a wad. Just some anti-gay “jokes” that received a “thunderous cheer” from the crowd that night, according to Kevin Rogers. Those “10 to 15 people” who “walked out”, they just can’t take a “joke”, can they? Ditto Tina Fey and Wanda Sykes, right Bill?
Channelling Chris Rock, Maher ends his Op-Ed thusly:
“I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone. That’s why we have Canada. That’s not us. If we sand down our rough edges and drain all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse, we’ll end up with political candidates who never say anything but the safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped platitudes and cant. In other words, we’ll get Mitt Romney.”
Maher kids about both my country and Romney but shouldn’t these jokes have just, oh I don’t know, a sliver of truth to them and actually be funny in order to prove his point? Plenty of offensive things have been said publicly in The Great White North by celebrities, politicians and newspaper writers over the years (I’m looking at you, Bloaty McFatAss). If you don’t believe me, do a Google search. As for Romney, isn’t he all for needlessly escalating tensions with Iran to the point of a full-scale war? That’s not offensive?
This idea Maher has that awful, spiteful comments from public figures being roundly condemned will result in “our rough edges” being “sand[ed] down” leading to the “drain[ing]” of “all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse” is such self-righteous bullshit from someone who once compared the mentally challenged to dogs and thinks nothing of calling Sarah Palin a “cunt”, among other controversial “jokes”, and yet hasn’t softened his act in any shape or form. (For the record, he only apologized for the former, not the latter.)
It sounds like Maher wants to be able to say awful things in the context of a joke and not have anyone complain about it. Why? Because he doesn’t want to have to justify what he says. He just wants the laugh. But if you’re not getting the laugh, how can you defend the joke?
Which brings me back to his question: “When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?” Is he suggesting that the widespread criticism of Don Imus, Morgan, Rush Limbaugh, the foolish ESPN employee who wrote “Chink In The Armour” about New York Knick Jeremy Lin and himself are really a front for censorship or at least phase one in that ultimately diabolical plan? That critics aren’t just complaining about questionable judgment and bad decision making, they’re also hoping to end careers?
It’s a bold accusation that Maher can’t be bothered to back up. It’s not difficult to understand why. With the exception of Anthony Federico, the ESPN headline writer who got fired for posting what Maher dismissively called “the wrong cliche”, every single person he names in his piece still has a job in the media and more importantly, they haven’t lost their free speech rights.
Just like Bill Maher.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, March 24, 2012