Over the past couple of days, social media has been a microcosm of everything that's wrong with our current society. First, there was the vile tweet by comedian and actress Roseanne Barr, in which she compared a black woman (Valerie Jarrett) to an ape; there was also an equally vile tweet in which she claimed philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish, was actually a Nazi collaborator during World War II (he was not, by the way). This was followed the next day by social media outrage over TV comedian and political commentator Samantha Bee, who, in the midst of criticizing Ivanka Trump, called her the C word.
Most (but not all) of the people who were upset with Samantha Bee were conservatives who were furious at her attack on Ivanka, and who saw an opportunity for "whataboutism"-- yes, Roseanne was crude, but what about Samantha Bee? Roseanne's TV show got canceled because of her racist tweet, but what about Samantha Bee (or Bill Maher, for that matter); why are they still on the air, given all the vile remarks they make about the president and his family?
Meanwhile, Roseanne semi-apologized for her attack on Valerie Jarrett, blaming Ambien for her tweet (an excuse the company that makes Ambien found less than convincing); but she didn't apologize for her numerous other bigoted or factually-challenged tweets, including the one with the anti-Semitic attack on George Soros (you may not agree with his politics; but no, he never helped the Nazis, as any reputable fact-checking site can show you).
Before I get accused of partisanship, let me say that Samantha Bee was wrong to use the C word (a word I've never used in my entire life); I'm glad she apologized-- she could just as easily have made her point without using a word that even many feminists find problematic. But as I see it, her crude insult was nowhere nearly as bad as when Roseanne slandered an entire race by comparing them to apes (something, it should be noted, that various bigots liked to do when talking about Barack and Michelle Obama).
But the real issue isn't which celebrity's remarks were worse. The real issue is that we have increasingly become a culture that accepts hateful and vulgar comments, and in some cases, even approves of them. Yes, there is a brief burst of outraged Tweets from partisans; but then, it's on to the next series of outrages. And whether it's on social media or in the White House, making this kind of remark no longer comes with any political cost; and it no longer seems to come with any social cost either. Not that long ago, neither Republicans nor Democrats would use curse words on TV or make crude remarks at public rallies; it would have lost them public support. And while there have been "shock jocks" on radio and TV since the 1980s, even they had lines they would not cross, for fear of being fined or getting fired.
Yet here we are with a president whose base applauds him for using vulgar and hateful rhetoric; even his evangelical Christian supporters won't rebuke him, because they like his stance on appointing conservative judges, or they hope he'll defund Planned Parenthood. And here we are with a culture that gets outraged only if someone from "the other side" says something vulgar, yet they remain silent when someone from "their side" makes even the most bigoted remarks.
Back in 2004, when Judith Martin was "Miss Manners" at the Washington Post, she wrote a good definition of vulgarity. She said it was "one of those lapses of manners that does not arise from
accident or ignorance. Whether it is showing off or showing too much, it
is done to provoke others to envy or disgust." But it's what she said next that still resonates with me: "So, while allowing [vulgarity] to
become commonplace helps dull the reaction, it forces down the standards
with which everyone else has to live."
And that is where we seem to be: unable to see what we are losing as a result of this coarsening of our culture; and unwilling to stop being partisan long enough to say "No" to the degradation of our public discourse. It's easy to blame Roseanne Barr, or Samantha Bee, or Donald Trump-- but a lot of factors have gotten us to this point. And having gotten here, I wonder if there's a way to turn things around-- or will this slide into even more hate and vulgarity continue?