Horrific, appalling...and perplexing 5/31 '18
NOTE: Karen Hoofnagle has used OPW to try to get a handle on what she thinks. I'm going to take a page from her book here. I'd also be pleased if you have any considered opinions that might help me to clarify my thinking.
Sorry it's so long.
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Were the ABC network executives genuinely offended by Roseanne Barr's tweet about Valerie Jarrett? Certainly, plenty of viewers were. Viewers vote with their pocketbooks, and ABC heard the reactions loud and clear. Barr's comments have been widely condemned as "apalling", "horrific", "disgusting", "bigoted" and "racist". But are these characterizations valid? I am not a Rosanne Barr fan and I didn't like the tweet, but I detest knee-jerk reactions, especially my own. So I'm trying to plow through this, and I'd be delighted if you came along as a navigator.
Here's the tweet:
“muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”
Barr's tweet is not at all funny to me, but it's not the lack of humor that has caused this firestorm. If a knee-jerk reaction isn't a good enough reason to be outraged, then how do you contextualize this tweet? I think I'd say this to Roseanne Barr:
1. Your tweet is based on your suggestion that Jarrett looks like an ape.
2. Jarrett is Black.
3. Black people as a group have often been insultingly compared to apes in the past. (That past includes Blacks being considered as subhuman.)
4. Your ape tweet about Jarrett isn't about her as Valerie Jarrett. At least in part, it's saying she is loathesome and inferior simply because she is Black.
5. That is racist and offensive.
I think you have to have all of #1 - #4 to justifiably get to #5. #1 to #3 aren't steps in an argument, they're simply statements of facts--but relevant facts. We wouldn't be embroiled in this story if Jarrett was White, or if Barr had suggested that Jarrett was the result of the mating of an Avon lady and a scorpion. But is the leap from #3 to #4 justified? Given the power and pervasiveness of #3, yeah, I think it is. Especially when coupled with some of Barr's earlier statements. And once you get to #4, #5 seems to me to be a no-brainer.
So screw you, Roseanne. I'm sorry about the blameless people who were working on your show and who now are out of work, but I'm happy to say buh-bye to you. Part of your defense for your tweet (aside from Ambien) was that you were "only joking". The particular kind of joke obviously falls into the mockery-derision-lampoon category. And just when I thought I had reached clear sailing, I've find I've got another problem. Because I have long enjoyed Stephen Colbert, John Stewart and the like. Let's look at some of their "jokes".
Colbert: “US Senator and ventriloquist dummy plotting against his master, Orrin Hatch...”
“Attorney General and racist Dobby, Jeff Sessions..."
"Majority Leader and doll carved from an apple, Mitch McConnell..."
Stewart: “I believe, and I am being completely serious right now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is a turtle.”
Stephen Colbert often uses the template above, usually with a picture that fits perfectly with his jibe. The best of these are often my favorite parts of a segment. As for Stewart, in the segment above he went on to try to entice McConnell with a leaf of lettuce.
Like Barr's tweet, these quips are rooted in something unkind. You don't say things like that about people you like. You don't say things like that *to* the person in question unless you're upset or angry with them. Even being catty behind the person's back springs from some negative and shared feelings about the target.
Virtuous souls may judge that such mean-spirited comments are always unkind, and therefore never funny and so shouldn't be made. I don't think most of us buy that. Satire, for example, is actually a very useful way to expose problems and deflate the pompous in the public sphere, and satire is going to include the kind of mockery we're talking about here. So what's okay, and what's not?
Maybe it's wrong to lampoon someone about something that they can't change. I hear this a lot when the topic is sex or race. But that's not the issue. Mitch McConnell can't help looking like a turtle--so what? No, in my search for some kind of guidelines, the best I have been able to do is this:
* Don't deride someone who is down, especially if they are down permanently. Don't deride someone that you have a lot of power over.
* If you deride someone you know to their face, especially in public, you are intending to hurt them. The *why* you want to hurt them is another matter. This goes double if you care about one another.
*Being catty (i.e., deriding someone in your social sphere behind his or her back) might be theraputic for spleen-venting, but it is not Nice. If you do it a lot, you are not Nice.
What *is* okay might be the opposite of what isn't. Dodging all of the asterisks above leaves you with an acceptable target for your derision. Someone you don't like (at least right now) but that you really don't know, and who doesn't know you. Someone who probably wouldn't hear what you said about them, and wouldn't really be much moved if they did. These requirements might be the permission slip...but the *desire* to deride in this way (or to enjoy the barbs of others) comes almost always, I think, from the feeling that this person has power over you--that there is some vexation in your life that they are responsible for, and that you can't make go away. And they just don't care.
So I guess I end up with an acceptable target list of celebrities, public officials, administrators, bosses, and the like. By this reasoning, I may a valid target for my students' jabs, so bring it on. Just make sure that the mockery is rooted in perception of the individual, not some hackneyed stereotype of a group.
I'm talking to you, Roseanne.