A few things to put out there right off the top:
- I like Bill Maher.
- I think what he said on Friday night was a mistake in the sense that it was stupid and self-inflicted.
- I also think the source of his slip-up came from a more complicated place. And, acting like it was just a slip of the tongue would be the real mistake for both Maher and HBO.
Because, these kinds of incidents don’t happen in a vacuum and there is some important context to be considered. I know some would say that in defense of Maher – advocating for people to give him a break because he’s on “the right team”. But, in my opinion, the context actually pushes him a bit in the opposite direction. Mainly, because when you actually consider Maher’s history on this topic and others like it – it actually makes his slip-up on Friday night seem less like a mistake and more like a manifestation of something more problematic – actual racism.
This isn’t to say I think Maher’s ready to fill in for John Turturro in the sequel to Do the Right Thing. I would never accuse him of treating someone poorly simply because of the color of their skin. I would, however, accuse him of a few other things. Thinking he has a hood pass for one. Two, thinking that because he has progressive values he can splash around in racist stereotypes even though they reinforce a system of oppression that flies in the face of those values. For example, why does he do a “ghetto” voice when talking about Obama sometimes? Or, why can Obama only be black enough if he has a gun in his pants? I get that these are jokes, but even resorting to these tired-ass stereotypes reveal Maher probably doesn’t know black people as well as he thinks he does.
Say what you want about jokes, but the information you use to craft them is telling. And, just thinking that it would be cool for you to say the word “nigger” in such a context reveals a whole mess of subconscious biases about race that Maher should investigate. After all, these hidden biases are the main battlegrounds of racism that we’re fighting on today – and stuff like thinking that you’ve somehow “earned” the right to say the n-word shows that you fundamentally don’t get what it’s about. Friday night was a mistake that confirmed what I’ve been wary of while watching Maher for years – he really doesn’t understand race or racism at all.
One more caveat – I don’t think this incident was just about race. I also believe that what he said stems from some kind of belief that anyone should be allowed to say anything at anytime. Obviously, I vehemently disagree with him on this position – even while begrudgingly respecting his commitment to it. I mean, he’s literally willing to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to the issue. But, just because you believe you should be able to say anything doesn’t mean you understand what it is you’re saying. And, I’m curious to see if he uses his position on free speech to deflect/avoid a more introspective look at his other positions that are far more troubling. (More on this below.)
Honestly, Maher’s introspection doesn’t seem likely. And, moving forward that increases the chances of another slip-up similar to the one on Friday night. Bill Maher is not one to change his mind – a refusal to back down is probably his most definable quality. It’s what makes him so cathartic to watch when it comes to certain issues. It’s also what makes him so wrong about others.
FIRST – A BIT OF THE GOOD STUFF:
As I said, I genuinely like Bill Maher. He has been a valuable voice in the progressive community because of his willingness to be as dickish about his compassion as he is about the issues where he’s actually just being a dick. He’s a more “sporting” kind of progressive – someone who doesn’t want the game to be rigged. And, I appreciate his fight for a world that’s both fair and competitive.
The fact that Maher doesn’t fall into some of the pitfalls that other progressives do makes his voice worthwhile (in my opinion). Progressive pitfalls like…
- People whose political views are as blatantly formed by their own self-interest as the forces they are fighting against.
- People who talk a good game, but really aren’t about it because the status quo works for them.
- People who are hippy-dippy, let’s-hold-hands, wussbags whose pleas for compassion stem mostly out of their own weakness.
Bill Maher is a rich, straight, white guy in his 60’s, and because of that, simply chilling out and being a Republican would make his life 1000x easier. He has nothing to gain from his political views. And that means, it’s pretty clear that the only reason that Maher has the political views he does is because he believes them. This simple fact gives him a shield of unassailability against the right wing of America – one that loves to demonize progressives for their personal characteristics instead of engaging them on their actual ideas.
In other words, Maher is one of the few progressive voices who can effectively stand his ground against right-wingers while also removing their go-to deflections. He forces them to have a debate on the actual issues and facts. A debate they typically can’t win. That matters.
He’s also quicker on his feet, has an actual sense of humor (most of the time), and is more confident in person than the kind of ineffectual liberals that conservatives love to “man up” against. Not only that, but Maher’s honesty about his own shortcomings gives him a level of authenticity that most politicians and right-wing advocates simply don’t have. It’s a brand of honesty that – at the very least – he’s already applied to an apology. A good start – but we’ll see if he actually reevaluates some of his beliefs.
I think he needs to if he wants to stay on the air. And, it would be a form tragic irony if the same stubbornness that makes him so satisfying to watch when dismantling poorly constructed ideas undid him on this. Like, Bill – you are a white guy who dropped the all-time racial slur. You need to do some very real soul searching about why you thought that would ever be okay.
I hope that search happens. For all the reasons above, I really enjoy his show. I’m a fan of his. But, I also understand that what happened on Friday is an issue that doesn’t affect or apply to me. This is not a decision to be made by people like me. And, we’ll see what happens in the coming weeks. If he manages to keep his show on HBO, this could be a prime opportunity for him to challenge his constant desire to categorize large groups of people. And then, maybe he can apply that growth to some of his more troubling positions that stem from that desire.
NOW – THE BAD STUFF:
Back in February, Bill Maher had Milo Yiannopoulos on his show as a guest and the ensuing interview was a bummer for a couple reasons – both of which speak to two of the biggest flaws in Maher’s worldview.
The first bummer was how he and Milo (I’m using his first name because it’s short, not because we’re buds) found common ground on the issue of free speech. This is a battle Maher has been waging for a while now – and while I do agree that there are certain aspects of the social media “thought police” that are frustrating and disingenuous – I also think his position in this debate is pretty poorly constructed.
During the discussion the two of them derided UC Berkeley students for protesting Milo’s speaking engagement on campus as if this someone how pointed to an erosion of America’s reverence and respect for free thought and debate. Long story short – it totally doesn’t. And, seriously – I can’t overstate how tired and wrong this argument is. Last I checked, protests are also a form of free speech and no one at Berkeley was advocating for Milo to be put in jail for what he was saying. It was just that the students didn’t want his racist, misogynistic bullshit on their campus. Which is a perfectly fine and totally valid response to his presence. Bill Maher’s race to defend a place for Milo’s ideas at a university? Not as valid. Because, you know what’s more important to have on a college campus than a “free exchange of ideas”? Facts. And racism, and misogyny, and all the other garbage that people like Milo spew is factually inaccurate – plain and simple.
Maher’s defense seemed more motivated by a self-serving desire to protect provocateurs than it did to advocate for what’s actually right, or, what free speech really is for that matter. Just to reiterate – free speech doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want without consequences. Which means Milo has a much of a right to spout his bullshit as UC Berkeley students do to stand on campus with signs and speak up about how his played out lies serve no purpose in a substantive debate about anything that’s actually meaningful. Liars have no place in our country’s discourse – and if you’re peddling fear-based, hateful propaganda that’s been disproven for decades – you can go jump in a fucking lake. End of story.
The other thing that happened during the interview was that he called Milo a “faggot”. He obviously felt like this proved something about free speech, but all it did was reveal one of two things (or maybe both) that are actually more troubling:
- He actually views Milo this way.
- He wants to be able to say a word that hurts people simply because people are asking/telling him not to say it.
Obviously, both of those reasons are wack. Either Bill Maher sees Milo as gay before he sees him as a person (which as disgusting as Milo ideas are, he still deserves that most basic human dignity). Or, he wants to say the word simply because people are telling him he can’t. Considering it’s a slur that hurts people and has some serious blood on its hands – that’s not a choice that’s ideologically in line with the compassionate, progressive values that he’s advocating for every week.
Here’s the reality – if people tell you something hurts them when you say it – then why is it even important to use that word? How hard is it to let it go if you truly have compassion for the people you are offending? Answer – it’s not that hard. And yet, this is a stance that I see a lot of white people take. In a world where us whites are used to getting what we want, there’s very clearly a sect of our population that does not like (and/or cannot understand) that they’re “not allowed” to say certain things. Almost as if the words they want to say are more important than the actual people they’re hurting. As ridiculous as it might sound to some, there remain a ton of white people who still don’t get why they can’t use the n-word and other slurs like it.
Obviously, Bill Maher is one of them.
And, maybe that one argument alone would be easier to accept from him because it aligns with a fight for fairness that he clearly values. But again, we come back to his consistent desire to categorize people. One that has become increasingly prevalent over the years when discussing his views on Muslims. It’s a sentiment that Desus wrapped up pretty profoundly in one tweet:
Pretty much. Because, it’s the same biased mechanism that allows Maher to believe being a Muslim could make a person more inherently violent that I’m guessing made him think it would be okay to use a racial slur on television.
Bill Maher has yet to understand a key ingredient in both situations – race, religion – these are all constructs. And, scientifically speaking, that makes them not so good (and very much debunked) indicators of a human being’s behavior in a given situation. There’s no inherent superiority or inferiority to be found in something as basic as the god you worship or the color of your skin. It’s a total falsehood, as people generally do a lot of different things for the same, fundamentally human reasons – love, fear, survival, acceptance… The list goes on.
If Maher had done any legitimate research into the issue of violent extremism he would learn it’s impossible to suggest that something as simple as religion could lead to its cause. The same way being black doesn’t mean anything about whether or not you need to be a gangster with a gun in your pants. I know he doesn’t literally believe that, but his insistence to go there seems to point to a failure in understanding. He still doesn’t get that human beings are susceptible to a wide range of both micro- and macro- factors that can lead to pretty much anything – good or bad. If he did get that, I have to believe he’d see some things differently.
For example – just take a moment to think about how someone in Iraq might view the actions of the Iraq War. We Americans don’t view the war as violent or extreme behavior because when it started we dressed it up in a way that was socially acceptable to us. We made it about our freedom, our patriotism, our democracy – things made sense to our culture and our way of life. But, here’s the reality – we invaded a country that never did anything to us and proceeded to murder hundreds of thousands of its innocent civilians. Depending on the lens with which you view it, that behavior could be seen as both very extreme and very violent.
Look, these issues are complicated and I’m not acting like we (or especially I) have them all figured out. They’re incredibly complex and each one is wrapped in a million mysteries we’re still working to understand. But, here’s one thing we know for sure:
- Don’t make sweeping generalizations about large groups of people. They don’t help us find the truth.
If Bill Maher wants to keep hosting Real Time, he better learn that lesson real quick.