How Do We Decide Who Gets ‘Canceled?’

Editorial Director, Life
06.04.18 32 Comments

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Last week, I made the case that canceling Roseanne Barr’s show after her racist remarks was the right sort of poetic justice. She’d used her free speech to say something vile, the free market had responded with disgust, and ABC had booted her before she’d even had the chance to tweet her (now deleted) apology. It was, I wrote: “Exactly what our society needs: Humans forced to evolve and think deeper about how they treat one another, not as a result of legislation, but as a result of society’s own arc toward respecting dignity for all and how that arc affects the businesses we patronize.”

And yet… Barr isn’t the only famous person saying/tweeting regrettable things lately. She’s not even the only famous person to do so in the past few days. Samatha Bee apologized last Thursday for calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless c**t” on Full Frontal.. With Barr’s firing fresh, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and President Trump were quick to call for TBS to fire Bee, something the network seemed not at all inclined to do. The late-night host and the network both tweeted apologies and that was the end of it.

Meanwhile on June 1, just after midnight, Kanye West dropped Ye — a seven-song album that brought back his soulful roots and (for some) seemed to completely obliterate the ill will he created the month before by vouching for President Trump, suggesting that slavery was a choice, and wearing a MAGA hat (a decision which is questionable from his position as a style-icon, aside from everything else).

This all begs a whole score of questions: Why Barr and not Bee? Why do we give Kanye a pass and not offer Roseanne the chance to counteract her vitriol with creative output? Why does it always seem to be “different” when someone who liberals support screws up?

BEE vs. BAR

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To savvy the difference between Samantha Bee’s insult to Ivanka Trump and Roseanne’s Tweet about Valerie Jarret, you have to recognize the importance of “in groups.” Bee and Ivanka Trump are both women and the insult is a deeply gendered one. This means Bee was speaking to someone in her in group (womanhood). Had Roseanne called Samantha Bee that same word, there would have been outrage, but it’s hard to think that her money-making TV show would be canceled.

Meanwhile, Barr’s insult to Jarret was tinged with deep-seeded racism. By referencing Planet of the Apes she played into a brand of racial stereotyping that has long been used to dehumanize blacks. She was a white woman, insulting someone who belongs to a marginalized group (of which the insulter does not belong). It wasn’t just gross, it was unarguably bigoted. Its intent was to dehumanize someone — and no amount of sleeping pills begin to excuse that.

THE KANYE QUESTION

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When you talk about Kanye’s public offenses, you have to be specific. There are plenty to pick from (“Bill Cosby innocent“). Did Kanye’s love for President Trump cause an outcry? Sure. But Trump was elected to the highest office in the land, so it stands to reason that he has fans. Bigger still was Kanye’s “slavery was a choice” line, which was obviously deeply offensive and highly inflammatory. The issue of in groups comes into play here again — obviously what Kanye said carries a different context coming from a black man than it would from Rosanne Barr.

But perhaps the most interesting bit to explore, with relation to Kanye (who, like Barr, has Tweeted bizarre, conspiratorial, deeply hurtful things in the past) is the idea of genius. From gospel rap to autotune to techno-hip hop crossover, the man has jumpstarted massive musical movements. He is iconic and known to be a bit of a rock n’ roller (a subset of musicians for whom erratic behavior has long been excused). In 20 years, it’ll be Kanye tour shirts the kids are buying at pre-ripped and faded. Yes, he is an arrogant, indulgent, megalomaniac, but damnremember the day the Runaway mini-movie launched? It was a shocking act of creativity. Society has a proclivity to forgive straight up creative iconoclasts (sometimes in situations where they absolutely shouldn’t — like Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Asia Argento and 97 others asking for clemency for Roman Polanski).

For Barr — who is, at her best, a deeply incisive comic who cuts to the heart of middle-class angst while serving as an advocate for society’s outsiders — the jab about Jarret crossed the Rubicon. It was inflammatory enough as to force her long history of mean-spirited, oft-bigoted Tweeting to bleed into her once-again-lucrative life on TV. She fanned the flames of the most delicate topic in the country: race and, unlike Kanye, she was doing it as an outsider.

(Truth be told, no one is bulletproof, and the number of people who continue to excuse West is clearly in a downturn.)

WHAT ABOUT BILL MAHER?

After Barr’s Tweet got her fired, people on the right compared it to when Bill Maher likened President Trump to an orangutan. The jokes were even constructed similarly.

Is the situation the same, though? Not even close. There’s no racial context at play. This shouldn’t take explaining, but if it does just watch the video above. TLDW: it’s not rocket science to understand how these scenarios are different. As much as “straw man” is overused and misunderstood, to compare Maher/Trump to Barr/Jarret is the ultimate straw man.

A more relevant Maher moment would be when he said the n-word on air. In that situation, his firing was openly contemplated by studio execs. And had his show been on hiatus and the word been used in a Tweet, he very likely would have been fired. Fortunately for Maher, he had the cultural cache to have Ice Cube on the very next week (the same episode where he likened Trump to an orangutan), so that the rapper/producer/actor/writer could deftly school him on why the n-word isn’t even cool in glib jokes. (Because somehow that’s still a thing people need to be told over and over.)

Looking back at the Maher moment and the petulant way he responded to being taken to task by Ice Cube, it’s easy to see why many on the left actually cosigned the right’s calls for Maher to be canceled along with Barr — as the viral Tweet below alludes to.

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The point here is a simple one: The issues at stake when a famous person says or does something hurtful/offensive/inflammatory are never quite the same. Sometimes society will overreact, sometimes we’ll underreact, and sometimes we’ll nail it. Sometimes people will be “canceled” — by the audience, in this usage — and never really come back. Other times, they’ll get second and even third chances.

In the quest to build a better society, we’re going to stumble. But by engaging in these thought processes — wrestling them and asking ourselves tough questions rather than just being outraged, tweeting something, and letting it pass — we’ll continue to understand the issues at stake better and better. We’ll grow more nuanced, culturally. And that’s a damn good thing.