I’m a little saddened by the results of the recent blow-up over Rush Limbaugh calling a liberal activist a slut. Rush apologized, but no one accepted his apology. People on the right began pointing out liberal pundits and comedians who have said as bad or worse. In the end, I’m not sure if anyone has learned anything, if anything has changed, or if we won’t be right back here again in a few months.
But one thing in all this stuck out to me, and that’s Bill Maher’s attempt to excuse himself for his offensive language based on his being a comedian. While he is quick to point out that Limbaugh has his first-amendment rights to say what he wants, and that he feels the advertiser boycott is unwarranted, he still basically tries to avoid taking any responsibility for things he’s said.
Essentially his argument is that he’s being funny, and if his audience didn’t think it was funny they would let him know. That’s a cop-out, really. He’s essentially saying his job is to be as offensive as he can be and try and find the point where his audience will push back. That’s not comedy. That’s social stress-testing, and it incriminates not only Maher, but his audiences. Why does his audience think it’s funny to call women misogynist names? Why does he think it’s funny to try? How does this make either party look good?
But more importantly, why is it that comedians get a pass but political entertainers don’t? Maher, after all, has a political tallk show, too, and even though it’s run by a comedian, they discuss serious topics. And while they’re discussing these topics they attempt to be funny by wishing nasty things on their political enemies (like sending Michelle Bachmann to Egypt to get raped by demonstrators). Why does this get a pass, but Rush’s attempt to be funny about a liberal activist not? I don’t get it. I don’t think Rush should have sunk to that level, either–I don’t excuse Limbaugh or Maher.
This also begs the question of “what is a comedian?” How do you define it, and hence decide who can say nasty things and get away with it and who can’t? Is a comedian someone who makes 100% of his income from performing comedy? 75%? %50%+? Where is the line? Do you have to have so many years as a comedian before you’re certified to insult people?
And does this mean that the rest of us are allowed to repeat their offensive jokes so long as we give them credit? Or is that not allowed, because we are not professional comedians, and therefore are mean and reprehensible when we do it? Please clarify this for me, Mr. Maher. Is it okay for me to call Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama terrible names if I write a disclaimer at the front of my blog: This post is intended to be comedy. I am attempting to be a comedian, so anything I say is okay?
I’m sorry, but I cannot accept that line of reasoning. In an era when we’re all calling for greater civility in our public discourse, we need to be finding out how to set the bar higher, not seeking excuses to continue dropping the bar through the floor. The ability to make an audience laugh at terrible insults that they would be quite offended if they were leveled at them is not comedy. It’s a form of verbal bullying–it’s okay, so long as it’s someone else we’re picking on!
Aren’t both sides of the political fence claiming the be the party of improving humanity–one side by returning us to our better values, the other by moving us forward to find our better selves? So why do we accept this behavior, even from our comedians? Why do we continue to let them see just how much they can get away with, while holding everyone else but them accountable for their every word? It makes no sense.
Mr. Maher, I challenge you to be funny without resorting to such crude verbal intimidation. Mr. Limbaugh, I challenge you to make coherent points based on the merits of your argument and the errors in logic of your opponents rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks? You both think you’re being funny when you attack people like that.
But there is nothing funny about this headlong race for the gutter we all seem to be engaged in.