In the past two weeks, two high profile comediennes made two high profile verbal assaults against political figures, and received two vastly different responses.
First, Roseanne Barr made a series of late night tweets, encompassing former Obama-administration official Valerie Jarrett as the progeny of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes, as well as other casual comments relating to Nazism. ABC, the network that had rebooted her decades old family sitcom reacted swiftly, cancelling the entire show. This was a family sitcom, and ABC perhaps feared that these comments would damage their brand, and continuing to carry Roseanne would blight their reputation as a relatively tame network appropriate for children and adults alike. What was ironic is that her history of making violent, racist, and repugnant tweets predates the reboot for years, and the network had also previously expressed reservations about her propensity to make outrageous remarks.
Within the next few days, Samantha Bee, also a comedian, in her late night show actually called, “Full Frontal,” called Ivanka Trump a feckless cunt, and suggested that her father had incestuous tendencies towards her. TBS decided that her apology was sufficient, and Samantha Bee has continued on the network.
After the Roseanne Barr incident, many on the right side of the political spectrum, who saw her as one of the few conservative leaning figures in Hollywood decried the intensity of recent media policing of political correctness, claiming it was a long fulfilled effort to stifle an opposing voice. After Samantha Bee’s comment, there were calls for her firing as well, and then after her network, TBS, let the issue go, claims of a double standard for left leaning versus right leaning figures in the media.
The false equivalency between the two comments should be apparent, as the venues for these comments, and the reactions from and identities of the networks couldn’t be more clearly different.
Roseanne Barr is the star of a recently rebooted sitcom, and has a deep history of making inane comments, while also being at the head of a show that is geared towards families with small children. Her comments were clearly racist and embarrassing for all parties involved, and the network, rightly or wrongly, chose to terminate their relationship with her.
Samantha Bee is the star of a biting satire show, run at late night, and in a sector filled with controversial vitriol, satiric political comedy. The line was likely scripted, and the network, again within their discretion, chose not to penalize her after the apology.
The public has been in a flurry to debate the limits of political correctness, claiming that Roseanne was misfairly treated for her comments that come in an era where poisonous and insulting language is commonplace, with the President of the US himself regularly insulting foreign leaders and other politicians using twitter. The political left by and large granting a pass to Samantha Bee, while blistering Roseanne Barr, has therefore been seized upon, and some of the right claim for absolutism when it comes to public reactions to such behavior. The national review recently called for an all or none policy, in which political correctness, if violated, can be grounds for firing those on the right should also be applied for the left, or otherwise that free speech should be absolute, and that we should accept horrendous comments from anyone, perhaps in order to sustain freedom of expression or perhaps because if the public chooses to follow these actors and actresses, then they should be subjected to their misbehavior as well as their artistic production.
The issue that many on the right and left fail to grasp is that freedom of speech is never absolute, the content of the misbehavior matters, and context is crucial when determining if public and corporate reactions are “fair” or “unfair,” to the public figures or their “fans.”
The same argument was made during the height of the outing of male-on-female “sexual harassment” when it was at is peak months ago. Senator Al Franken, a leading Democratic figure, was deeply pressured by the public and his own party to resign for a very ill-humored joke photograph he took angling his hands as though he were pretending to grope a sleeping woman. At the same time, Roy Moore, Republican candidate for an Alabama Senate race received relatively little pressure after it became public that he had allegedly dated several teenagers when he was in his mid-thirties, and allegedly groped one of them. The actions allegedly performed by both men were vastly different, their parties were different, and the reactions from both the public and their fellow party members were completely different. One was forced to resign, and the other received little backlash, going on to run for his parties seat, and ultimately losing. Some on the left were infuriated by the reaction of Democratic caucus members pressuring Franken to resign while Moore continued his run. The message was that context and peer groups matter more than the act sometimes. Public reaction, even sometimes to the same act, can be inconsistent, and deeply dependent on the actor as well as the audience.
Roseanne’s cancellation was not an act of censorship. It was a reaction by a corporate network to a mood in America, and a sharp dichotomy towards a viciously PC culture dominating one swath of America, and an “anything goes” and “my side can do no wrong” culture dominating the other. Neither is fully right.
Political correctness has value, and preserves the respect and dignity of our culture and officials by creating a loose structure of norms of behavior and speech that make sure that hatefulness seldom rears its ugly head and tears apart the national unity of a country.
The ability for satire, cruel, and dissident speech also has a place in society, and should not only be legally protected but offered a venue.
The government already has no ability or right to suppress the dissemination of hate speech. That is a fact. This does not mean that privately owned corporations need to allow their contracted employees to issue drug-induced hate speech, which is precisely what happened.
In the case of Roseanne Barr, she issued, not satirical political speech, but a slew of disturbing a racially charged tweets, of which she had a known history, and did it in a venue that was inappropriate, and while heading a show whose audience expected her to maintain a high level of public composure.
Samantha Bee is a comedian shock-jockey and always has been, delivered scripted vicious political satire in the venue that she intended, and towards an audience of people who expected that level of causticness and language. The two circumstances were clearly different, as were their networks, and therefore, the results were different. Roseanne Barr made not one, but hundreds of such tweets, and the mistake was made by ABC initially for renewing her show when she had a public history of making abhorrent public comments.
Here is an assortment of her more spectacular quotes:
To those on the right who bemoan an overly strong PC culture, in many circumstances, it may be true that in left-leaning venues, and in some circles, dissident speech is not tolerated. This is contrary to the old-definition “liberal” foundations of American society, culture, and politics. Notwithstanding this, in general American culture, American-conservative views are not only not suppressed, but are so common that they drown out the rest of the voices in certain formats. Cable news, talk radio, and wide swaths of the internet pay little obeyance to political correctness, and this is as it should be, freely offering an alternative viewpoint to the mainstream of thought. It should be accepted that it is abhorrent that on some college campuses, some actors, instead of trying to protest disagreeable speech, try to prevent objectionable voices from ever speaking. A diversity of viewpoints, and the right to express potentially abominable ideas should be offered. It is up to people whether to listen and give them attention.
However, the fact that political correctness still generally pervades public office is also a positive trait of our democracy. Our public discourse should keep a modicum of civility, to preserve the respect that the public should maintain for the American democratic system. The office of the Presidency of the United States has already been historically degraded, not by the identity of the man who holds it, but by his actions and words. If the public discourse of the United States too begins to resemble the lowest fringes of or republic, then our ability to compromise, to logically solve our nation’s problems with reason and cooperation, instead of emotion and bile, will be lost.
Staff writer: Ari B