Politics & Policy

Stop the Firings for Offensive Speech

Samantha Bee at the “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” in Washington, D.C., April 29, 2017 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
It’s time for an amnesty for speech offenses.

Calls for Samantha Bee to be axed seem only fair after Roseanne Barr met that fate. If Barr lost her television show for a racist tweet why shouldn’t Samantha Bee lose hers for a presumably scripted line on her show in which she called Ivanka Trump a c*** and implied that she could get her father to change his mind about an issue by wearing something tight and low-cut?

That Barr was summarily fired by ABC while Bee is being allowed to merely apologize and move on strikes a lot of Americans as not only unjust but more evidence of the way liberals like Bee are given impunity to trash their opponents while conservatives — or those like Barr who can be associated with a Republican president — are held to a stricter standard of conduct.

Conservatives are right to complain. The late-night comedy shows on network and cable television provide a never-ending stream of abuse of President Trump, Republicans, and conservative ideas. Hosts such as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Bill Maher are often particularly vulgar and profane.

The frustration about the constant pummeling they take from liberal comedians is part of the reason that when presented with something as egregious as Bee’s comments, the Right wants retribution. But instead of demands that her head be placed on a spike alongside that of Barr, as President Trump is calling for today, maybe it’s time for conservatives to stop playing this futile game and start defending the notion that no one should lose his or her livelihood as a punishment for saying despicable things.

To call for an end to guillotining vile comedians is not to  defend Barr’s remarks (or Bee’s). Some on the right reflexively engaged in blatant “whataboutism” in the aftermath of her appalling tweet that compared Obama-administration senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape. But racism of that sort isn’t funny and is never acceptable no matter how much you don’t like the object of the comment. Barr richly earned the condemnation she received, and if the consequences were extreme she ultimately has no one to blame but herself.

Nor was her firing a free-speech issue. No one has a constitutional right to a television show, and if ABC doesn’t wish to associate its company brand with someone like Barr, whose Twitter feed was often a compendium of unhinged thoughts and conspiracy theories long before the tweet about Jarrett, that is its right.

True, the fact that TBS executives aren’t as offended by Bee’s disgusting remarks says a lot about the way the entertainment industry skews to the left. That’s especially true when you take into account that, unlike Barr’s tweet, which was just one of many impromptu bizarre statements she has made on social media, Bee’s slurs against the Trumps were certainly premeditated if not scripted, and taped in advance.

Seen from this perspective, the calls for Bee to be fired are understandable. Double standards of this sort aren’t merely unfair; they undermine the public’s trust in the networks as well as in the news media. Liberals who wonder why those who voted for Trump don’t take to heart the criticisms of his behavior and statements from the mainstream liberal media should understand that it is in part a product of the distrust of the cultural and journalistic establishment that is fed by incidents like these. It’s no good lamenting the widening partisan gap between left and right while hewing to a standard that hands down a professional death penalty for right-wing offenses while letting those who behave badly on the left off with a slap on the wrist, if they are admonished at all.

So in the wake of Barr’s demise, conservative media are full of examples of not entirely dissimilar bad behavior from the left, of which there is no shortage. Many would like to apply the same standard that led to Barr’s firing to ESPN’s Keith Olbermann and to demand that Kathy Griffin not be allowed back from a temporary exile after joking about decapitating Trump.

Ironically, the political-correctness police are nipping at the heels of MSNBC’s Joy Reid not for her biased commentary or unfair attacks on conservatives but for comments (among other whacky posts) posted on her blog some years ago that disparaged gay people. In this hyper-partisan atmosphere, the prospect of Reid’s obnoxious voice — or that of Bee and many others — being silenced is irresistible to many conservatives.

Yet the impulse to indulge in schadenfreude should be resisted.

We can’t turn back the clock to a bygone era when networks wouldn’t stand for their talent engaging in vulgarity, profanity, and hyper-partisan ideological commentary from either end of the spectrum. Since the days of censors and codes of conduct on television are as outdated as Lawrence Welk reruns, conservatives must come to grips with the fact that the Left has a near monopoly on pop culture, and those who don’t like it must simply change the channel.

Those who want to stand up for conservative ideas and the very notion of liberty shouldn’t be forming their own PC lynch mobs to compete with those already on the march.

It has always been the Left that has sought to enforce a standard that sees all conservative speech as inherently offensive while treating insults from their side as defensible, if not necessary, no matter how vile. Perhaps this is a moment when Americans should be reminded that the right to express strong, even deeply and offensive and vile opinions, is part of living in a democracy. While no one has to watch or otherwise support a show led by someone he despises, the idea that speaking your mind means risking your job is a totalitarian notion that ought to be alien to a democratic republic.

If you must, boycott programs you don’t like or whose stars have crossed a line in their comments. But a rule that demands that anyone who speaks out of turn, even as egregiously as Barr, should face professional execution is excessive. And while making Bee walk the plank in her turn might be a case of turnabout being fair play, treating left-wing speech in the same way is no less wrong.

Conservatives who refuse to demand Bee’s head understand that the odds of the Left’s reciprocating are slim. But the madness of punishing speech in this manner must stop somewhere. It’s time for amnesty for speech offenses. If that means living with people we can’t stand like Barr or Bee, we should be consoled by the thought that in a free country, free speech really should be free.

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