Roseanne Barr is an American comedian whose fictional TV character of the same name is a working-class Trump supporter. For those who remember the show “All in the Family”, she might be usefully compared to Archie Bunker, the crude proletarian patriarch from Queens, New York.
Barr’s show was swiftly cancelled late last month by the television network ABC, not for anything her “character” said in her show, but for a tweet in which she described Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to Barack Obama, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
Some of the reactions were predictable, though no less strange for that. President Donald Trump tweeted that ABC had never apologized for the “horrible statements made and said” about him on the network, and that another comedian, Samantha Bee, should be fired for using offensive language about his daughter Ivanka.
Trump’s opponents were quick to see Barr’s act, as well as her tweet, as typical of the kind of working-class bigotry that the president is actively encouraging by example. Many saw it as a good thing that her show was taken off the air.
Both responses miss the mark. Barr often expresses bizarre opinions that cannot be pinned down to any political ideology, and she has a long history of odd behaviour, which is not typical of any-thing. But Trump’s view – echoed by people who speak for him – that Bee was as bad as Barr, if not worse, ignores a crucial distinction.
Bee used offensive language, for which she later apologised, to criticize Ivanka’s lack of protest against her father’s immigration policies. Fairly or not, she was attacking Trump’s daughter for her politics, not her bloodlines. Barr was mocking a woman for who she is, a person of colour. Comparing her to an ape has nothing to do with political differences; it is racism. No public figure needs to be defended, either by law or social convention, from an attack on his or her ideas. But hostility based on ethnic origin is not just uncivilized; it is dangerous. Whether religion, which for many people establishes their identity as much as the colour of their skin, should be classified as ideological, or as something closer to ethnicity, is debatable. The question is whether Barr should still be defended in the name of free speech.
Free speech is more firmly protected by law in the US than anywhere else in the world. But the cancellation of Barr’s show was, of course, not a legal decision. The limits of free speech are not just legal. Entertainment companies or mass media are sensitive to public opinion. People tend to get fired, for commercial reasons, if something they have said is deemed to be offensive to a large number of people.
The informal limits to free speech are subject to norms of social respectability. And these change, not just with time, but according to who speaks, when, and where. A comedian normally gets away with things that a politician, a university president, or a judge cannot. Until Trump came along, US presidents were held to stricter norms of behavior and speech than ordinary people.
Since norms in any given society are constantly being renegotiated, we need comedians, novelists, and artists to test the limits. Their works are part of the continuous negotiation. If ABC had fired Barr for something her comic character had said, she would have grounds to protest. After all, fictional characters should be allowed to be offensive. Many people might not approve of “Roseanne Barr,” but being crudely outspoken, even racist, is part of Barr’s act, just as it was for Carroll O’Connor in the role of Archie Bunker.
If Barr’s remarks had been made in private, that would not have been a sufficient reason to cancel her show, either. The question is where tweets fit in. Tweets are both personal and a performance; they are private thoughts made public, a kind of reality show – perfect, in other words, for a narcissistic huckster like Trump.
Normally we do not get to see or hear the unfiltered thoughts of other people, except possibly in a bar. Letters to the editors of newspapers used to be carefully screened, to prevent haters and cranks from getting public exposure. What was private remained private. This changed with the internet, where anybody’s thoughts, no matter how obnoxious or absurd, can be aired.
There may be a link between the rise of the internet and widespread public distrust of elites and experts, but it is not exactly clear what that link may be. It would be facile to blame disillusion with elites on new technology.
Clearly, communication via tweets and web-based commentary has strengthened the idea that expertise is redundant. We see this now in the political sphere. Until recently, politicians made most important decisions behind closed doors, surrounded by teams of expert advisers. Citizens would hear about these decisions, if they were lucky, through newspaper reports, press conferences, or television broadcasts. This system is not ideal. Less secrecy might have saved many a politician from making terrible blunders.
But now some of the most important decisions in the world’s mightiest democracy are based on the ignorant whims and unfiltered prejudices of a tweeting president, who is as coarse as “Roseanne Barr” and as weird as Roseanne Barr. The only major difference is that her tweets are those of a comic between jobs, whereas his can change the fate of the world.
— The author is the editor of The New York Review of Books, and has authored the book, Year Zero: A History of 1945