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  • Max Stearns

Reckless Joking (implied offensive language)

In 2010, I had the unique opportunity to spend a semester teaching in the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. One of the many pleasures was getting to know the terrific faculty, several of whom regularly descended on the lunchroom each day, discussing any number of fascinating topics. The culture in many ways brought me back to my very earliest years of teaching. Over the past week, I have been reminded over and over of one particular lunchtime conversation. There were about 6 or 7 of us, women and men, and one colleague mentioned that those in the US have unusual sensitivities concerning offensive language. Intrigued, I pressed a bit. He explained that several words that we think of as crossing the line, F***, S***, A**, among others, are not treated as particularly offensive there, and are even, with admitted caution, sometimes used in general conversation. He identified one exception: C***. Others in the room, including the women, expressed agreement.

When Roseanne Barr used "Ape" to describe Valerie Jarrett, who is African-American, it was obvious to me that the epithet crossed a prohibited line and that, given her past history, ABC would almost certainly cancel the show, as it immediately did. The real tragedy, of course, involves the lost jobs for hundreds of other women and men working on the show. In a FB exchange, a cousin lamented the latter loss, and a commenter replied that those in the industry will almost certainly land on their feet. With respect, I think my cousin was right. TV shows, and especially revived series, provide opportunities that are hardly fungible. Brady Bunch revivals, for example, created opportunities for past Bradys that they simply would not otherwise get, and as in virtually any complex industry, not everyone whose services are valued in one setting will necessarily be comparably valued in another. For now, Roseanne might morph into Darlene, a show centered on Sara Gilbert's character, but were I on the show and offered another opportunity, I’d probably take it. The show was called Roseanne for a reason.

Samantha Bee responded to a post by Ivanka Trump, a lovely picture with her baby, in synchronized clothing, the very week news emerged about the scope of a program separating migrant babies from their mothers. Bee described Ivanka not merely as clueless, but as a “feckless c***” for her routine failure to challenge effectively her father’s most abhorrent policies, this time breaking up families. Bee, a comedian, does not have Roseanne’s history, and with respect to Ivanka, Bee's offensive remark was not based on racism, sexism, or any other ism. Ivanka, as first daughter, is the ultimate woman of privilege. Bee’s criticism was based on Ivanka’s actual conduct (or lack thereof), namely posting a tone-deaf image, given its timing, that might have beautifully adorned a wall in her home, beyond earshot of the internet world.

This, of course, didn’t prevent Donald Trump from calling for Bee’s job. And those on the left, who Donald Trump claimed were shockingly silent at Bee’s offense, went beyond pressing obvious distinctions. They also observed that although Trump was quick to ask why ABC apologized for Roseanne, but not to him, he never criticized Barr's offensive remark. Beyond illustrating a non-sequitur, Trump brought to mind the apparently still permissible allegory of the kettle's accusatory pot. Following the Access Hollywood tape debacle, after all, Trump's critique must rest on some elusive distinction between two potentially problematic terms for the same female body part.

My favorite response to the Samantha Bee’s offensive comment was not Sally Field’s high praise of that anatomical wonder as “powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest,” even though it is certainly true that every one of us, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else, must be profoundly grateful. Although its originality is disputed, I was moved by the response of historian Jennifer Wright, who tweeted that the label was ill fitting as Ivanka lacks the "warmth" and "depth." This also left me to wonder why no one on the right pushed back against what, it seemed to me, was Bee’s real insult, beyond the base choice of a word. Merriam-Webster defines “feckless” as "weak" or "ineffective." To this observer, apparently along with the SNL cast, that seems apt. Since her father took office, Ivanka appears to have had virtually no effect in tempering his most problematic instincts.

Samantha Bee lamented that her poor choice of one word shifted the focus of a full day’s news coverage away from a tragic immigration policy. Roseanne Barr lamented that her use of a racial epithet cost many people their jobs, which still seems likely. To be sure, in this up-is-down-and-down-is-up world of false equivalents, or equivalence-because-Trump-says-so, this even remains possible for Full Frontal. Roseanne’s remark was beyond reproach, but not surprising given who she has revealed herself to be. Samantha Bee’s comment, by contrast, was reckless, which Merriam Webster defines as “marked by lack of proper caution.” Laywers use the term to mean knowingly taking a risk of harm.

There’s quite a lot or recklessness going around these days. This includes ABC's hiring a full ensemble to support a show whose named star, Roseanne Barr, has been consistently reckless herself, thereby knowingly taking the risk that with just one tweet, hundreds of careers might be in jeopardy. And yes, recklessness also includes putting on the air a word that although vacuous, is viewed, in terms of offense, in at least in some corners of the earth, as the final frontier. You know, “to boldly go where . . . .” Well . . . you get the idea.

I welcome your comments.

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