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Samantha Bee’s Defenders Play Calvinball with the Language

Samantha Bee (YouTube screengrab via "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee")

Do you ever get the impression that the rules of the game are being made up on the fly? Consider this tweet, from CNBC’s Christina Wilkie:


This is Calvinball. Imagine, if you will, that, say, Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter had called, say, Chelsea Clinton a “c***.” In what universe would the word have been dismissed as merely a “word choice,” divorced from any associated “worldview”? In such a circumstance, we’d be told that the word reflected the speaker’s sexism and misogyny; that it indicted his entire political ideology; that it highlighted the depravity of his audience; and so forth. The New York Times would link the comment to “rape culture” and “toxic masculinity.” College professors would explain that it came deep from the wells of American inequality. MSNBC would write an opera, and broadcast it over three days. The word would become a Weltanschauung in ten seconds flat.

Attempts to appeal to the speaker’s humanity — “that’s not the Ann I know!” — would fall flat. And not just in the case of an Ann Coulter or a Sean Hannity, but for anyone on the “wrong” side. If the speaker were tough to paint as a sexist, the word would be used instead as an example of the “latent” sexism of American culture — a sexism so potent that it pulls even ostensibly good people into its clasps. Breathless comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale would become de rigeur. And in would come the headshakers: “There’s just so much more work to be done,” they would sigh. “That the word came to mind in the first place shows that we’ve failed.”

But when Samantha Bee does it? It’s just a “word choice.” Hell, she might as well as have said “asparagus.”

Questions abound. Why was Roseanne’s crime one of conscience rather than of lexicon? What determines whether a phrase can be separated from a creed? N***er is just a word — abhorrent in the mouth of a Klansmen; emancipatory from the pen of Mark Twain — in what circumstances is it damning of a culture, and in what merely a joke? Is sexism less prone to capture our language than racism? Do wounding words not wound when wielded by someone popular? But none of these questions matter much, and it is futile to try to answer them, because there are no rules on display here. Bee is given a pass where others are not because . . . well, because she is. On Monday, words are mere tools; on Tuesday, they are superglued to superstructure. This is a game — nothing more, nothing less. It’s different when we do it.


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