How Far Is Too Far? On Bill Maher, Kathy Griffin, and Public Outrage

How Far Is Too Far? On Bill Maher, Kathy Griffin, and Public Outrage June 5, 2017

Sometimes outrage is the right way to say, "No way, this will not stand." (image via Pixabay)

Galen Broaddus (atheist blogger at Across Rivers Wide): Anybody want to talk about something controversial? We’ve had two liberal personalities — Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher — make some fairly shocking statements and get a fair amount of heat for it. The responses I’ve seen have been…interesting, to say the least.

Hind Makki (Muslim blogger at Hindtrospectives): Bill Maher has always said odious things. He plays it like it’s for shock value, like as a comedian, he should be able to say whatever he wants with no consequences, but repeating the same racist tropes for years tells me he’s not joking. The only thing I’m shocked about is that, apparently, now he’s gone too far.

Andy Gill (progressive Christian blogger at Andy Gill): I mean, the audience laughing hysterically, and then proceeding to clap for him after making this statement was… was just… horrifying.

Hind: And Ben Sasse¹ stayed quiet.

Galen: Maher and Griffin both have reputations for saying and doing shocking things (although not necessarily of the same degree or type), but seeing the mix of defensiveness and criticism even among people who share a lot of similar opinions intrigues me.

Andy: Galen, could you expound on that a bit? I’m also very intrigued by the workings of progressives and how much we all can agree on and yet simultaneously be divided, but what exactly do you see from your perspective that intrigues on this?

Galen: I see this as another axis of division on both sides of the spectrum: how one feels about civility vs. offense. There’s a segment of both the right and the left that exalts political incorrectness and an indifference (or, more appropriately, an affinity) toward causing offense. Maher is very much the figurehead of that on the political left; people like Milo Yiannopoulos represent it on the right. (Unsurprisingly, Maher and Milo got along just fine when they were together on Maher’s show.)

People who think political correctness is bullshit are going to defend Maher’s comments as being part of his outrage shtick; those who aren’t so persuaded are by and large criticizing Maher for doing what we would almost universally consider indefensible.

Andy: Which makes me feel and think that these figure heads don’t even believe the ish they spit out of their mouths so long as they have an audience.

Hind: As a society, we do give a lot of leeway to comedians and we expect them to be edgy and push the envelope. But both Griffin and Maher went beyond that, though, arguably, in different ways.

Andy: Which is exactly the crux of the matter: How far is too far? And what exactly should the consequences be for comedians that don’t just cross these hard set lines, but inappropriately leap over them?

Hind: I don’t think consequences should come from the government. Let the consumers decide if the Maher or Griffin (who was rightly visited by the FBI for her photoshoot) brands should still be relevant.

Galen: Right, the government doesn’t have a role in this. But the public does. This is where the free speech argument applies: Maher can say it, and we can all speak out for or against his speech.

Hind: Exactly.

Galen: I will say that I have a teeny tiny bit of sympathy for Ben Sasse, mostly because I could imagine being so shocked by Maher’s statement that I didn’t respond like I would have liked. Indeed, I have been so shocked by things that people said to my face and didn’t say what I wanted. And Sasse was quick to admit his failing and say that “The history of the n-word is an attack on universal human dignity.” That doesn’t excuse his response, but it’s not nothing, either.

That said, I could have done without his “1st Amendment absolutist” remark, which I think was fairly gratuitous.

Hind: I can see him shocked into silence in the moment. But the 1st Amendment tweet is too much. No one is saying Maher should go to jail. But what people are saying is that he should be held accountable by his employers for a deeply offensive joke that he knew would be offensive to a certain group of people — and for that reason, he used it. I mean, a very wealthy and powerful white man in 2017 comparing himself to an enslaved person for jokes? And using the most verboten American word to do it? He can say what he likes, but we the people can say that he doesn’t need to make money off of this deliberately crass behavior.

Andy: As I’m always trying to see the positive and/or the silver lining, I think that this is good in the sense that we are in fact seeing progression in that this is being so widely called out (thank you to social media and Twitter), whereas in years past I think that this would have been swept under the rug or just have not been seen by PoC who do not watch Maher. Sadly, though, this speaks into how increasingly prevalent “Backstage Bigotry” is amongst PoC’s supposed “allies,” i.e. the white progressive.

Hind: Is Griffin getting as much heat for her stunt? I’m not plugged into right wing media, but I assume so. What she did was equally as tasteless and vile as when RW folks would lynch and burn Obama effigies, and I’ve seen liberal media not give her a pass.

Galen: Part of this is hard to judge because Maher’s “joke” is very recent (as of this conversation²). Griffin also apologized remarkably quickly, although the photographer who was also behind it (Tyler Shields) is apparently still standing behind it. I’ve seen very little attention toward him, which might be telling in its own right.

Andy: Yeah, I haven’t heard too much regarding the photo; I think that we were all shocked into silence by it. It was disturbing to say the least.

Hind: Right, I worry that because most liberals hate Trump, they’ll give the Griffin photoshoot a pass, even though it was truly vile and out of bounds. Since I believe all life is sacred (#EvenOrangeLivesMatter), I was sickened. The reaction went beyond politics. But because racism is America’s biggest challenge, I think it’s hard for people to think past politics. Apparently, it’s some white folks’s biggest desire to be allowed to say the N-word and they don’t understand why they don’t get to have what they want in this case. That’s Maher in a nutshell, as far as I’m concerned.

Galen: There’s been a bit of that, or in some cases they’ve redirected the criticism toward Trump for getting so up in arms about how the photo affected Barron when he doesn’t seem to get a crap when it’s other kids who get hurt, like with immigrants or poor families who will lose coverage under the Republicans’ health care scheme.

To be honest, I’m not very happy about that because Trump being a hypocrite is not new information, and some of what I’ve seen has been very dismissive of the idea that Barron could have been traumatized by seeing it or that his trauma even matters at all because he’s a privileged kid. That bothers me a lot as well.

Hind: Agreed. Barron is a child and I believe that he easily could have been traumatized by seeing that photo. Trump is a liar, a predator, and a hypocrite, but let’s not blame an underage child for the sins of his father.

Galen: I really want to be hopeful like Andy has said, to see the backlash and outrage in these cases as a good sign of our typical immune system responding. What makes me worry is how many people see these as overreactions. When those groups get influence, as we’ve seen, things can get ugly all too quickly.

Andy: Yes, it’s good to know how others are perceiving response to these types of things; although I’m still yet confident in that, if we the people stay involved, thoughtful and active, then we’ll keep the trajectory of that “moral arc” headed in the right direction.

Hind: And if “we the people” don’t, then the almighty dollar will.

Image via Pixabay

¹ Sasse, a Republican senator from Kansas, was Maher’s interview guest. ^
² By the time our conversation was over, Maher had issued his own apology. ^
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