“I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullshit.”
― Mel Brooks
Samantha Bee used the C word to describe Ivanka Trump this week on her show and, like unto Roseanne Barr, it caused something of a kerfuffle. More in the links post tomorrow.
But in the meantime, and while I have this on the brain, do you know what? I HATE the C word. Hate it. It’s slung around in the UK like loose change in a way I never experienced in the States, and I haven’t gotten used to it in five years. I still feel a full body cringe at its ugliness whenever someone uses it. If TBS chose to reprimand or punish Samantha Bee like ABC chose to do with Roseanne, I wouldn’t like it, but I’d grudgingly admit it’s the network’s prerogative to make that kind of call.
I similarly think it’s the NFL’s right to try and set certain boundaries the speech of its players. I further think that deliberately defying rules is literally the point of a protest so we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples. Nevertheless, the Twitter wars rage.
The difference between a comedian and a president is that one of those people is expected, even encouraged to be vulgar. The other, historically, is expected to set an example to the nation state. One is expected to set standards, the other to push boundaries.vWhich brings me to the broad point I can’t shake.
Anyone who tries to defend the current political administration (the target of the comment in the first place) with the claim that vulgarity (as opposed to racism, for instance) should cost someone their job needs to have an intellectually honest conversation about the dude in the White House and how he got there. He weaponized vulgarity and rode it all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue.
You do not get to cheer a man who kicked off his political life by calling Mexican immigrants rapists, has a history of sexual assault allegations, and been caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their “pussy,” and then cry foul when an entertainer uses foul language towards one of his administration officals. One side does not get to say that Roseanne Barr’s statements on her twitter feed, filled with antisemitism and conspiracy theories, are jokes and then turn around and say that an unfriendly comedian’s jokes are beyond the pale.
Pick a lane. Either offensive jokes are acceptable more broadly or they are not. If you insist on your side’s right to be offensive, you should in turn be prepared to buckle up and be offended right back.
Here’s the thing. I believe wholeheartedly that the overall coarsening of our culture and public discourse is not a good thing. We’re all worse off for it. But spare me the moral hand wringing if your whole ethos and political strategy is built around “triggering” other people. These are your rules, it’s your game, and you’re in charge. Either toughen up and take what you sling out, or do your best to claw back the moral high ground if you can.
But to say that systemic and historically racist speech and vulgar speech are on par is a false equivalence. Both are bad. Both may incur consequences on the speaker. But one traditionally operates from the vantage point of power which could be interpreted as punching down, while the other is “punching up.” Ugly language may be frowned on but as a society we agree that there are places where it’s appropriate or at least acceptable. Antisemitism on the other hand, is not welcome. Unless you agree that there are “fine people” who believe in it.