The right to make a mistake.
There he goes again.
He being comedian and talk show host Bill Maher. The host of HBO’s Real Time stepped in it the other week, as described here by Esquire:
Yet while Maher has never hidden the joy he takes in busting on Trump — or, for that matter, his broadly Democratic leanings — he has distinguished himself from John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers by sucker-punching the Left as gleefully as he does the Right. Before introducing his panel, he talked one-on-one with Elizabeth Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, about why Americans chronically vote against their interests. Maher didn’t miss a chance to needle her with one of Trump’s own epithets. Attempting to explain the Democrats’ dismal fortunes with working-class voters, he told her, “They don’t like you, Pocahontas.” Warren didn’t respond to the insult, choosing instead to stare a hole through her host’s high forehead.
A few weeks later, Maher would answer a joke by Nebraska senator Ben Sasse with a similarly tone-deaf response. When Sasse extended an invitation to come work in Nebraska’s fields, Maher playacted surprise and said, “I’m a house nigger.” Whereas the Pocahontas remark prompted another round of an ancient Internet dispute — whether Maher is a misogynist, a dick, or a fearless political savant — the comment to Sasse sparked universal outrage. HBO called it “completely inexcusable and tasteless,” and many clamored for Maher to be fired.
Full disclosure. I’ve been on Bill’s show and, heaven forbid, had a great time. Bill is a liberal, his audience is liberal, the panelists for the most part are liberal. He says outrageous things. And… what?
This time around he said something that truly was offensive, disgracefully so. He quickly and correctly apologized, saying his words were, indeed, “offensive.” CNN wrote up his apology and reported on Maher’s conversation the following week as follows:
“I did a bad thing,” Maher said to his first guest, sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson. “For black folks, that word, I don’t care who you are, has caused pain. I’m not here to do that.”
Maher added that, “It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t said in malice. If it brought back pain to people then that’s why I apologized freely and I reiterated it tonight.”
… “This was just a mistake,” he said. “This was just a dumb interception.”
Later in the show, rapper and actor Ice Cube told Maher that the word is “like a knife” in that it can either be used as a weapon or as a tool.
“I think this is a teachable moment not just to you, but the people watching right now,” Ice Cube told Maher.
Maher responded by saying, “I think the people watching right now are saying, ‘That point has been made.”
My CNN colleague Symone Sanders was also on the show and said that his remark was a “slap in the face to black America.” I rarely agree with Symone, but on this one? Are you kidding? She was right a thousand times over.
This was exactly the way to address this issue. Admit the mistake and have three Americans who are black on the show to discuss. Then… move on to show next.
The problem America seems to be enduring at this moment in history is an epidemic of repression of free speech. It is particularly evident on college campuses where speakers like Ann Coulter or Charles Murray are either prevented from speaking under threat of violence (Coulter at Berkeley) or are, in fact, physically assaulted (Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont.) At Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington Professor Brett Weinstein had his own tale, which he related in the Wall Street Journal, which he headlined this way:
The Campus Mob Came for Me—and You, Professor, Could Be Next
Whites were asked to leave for a ‘Day of Absence.’ I objected. Then 50 yelling students crashed my class.
Weinstein wrote in part:
I was not expecting to hold my biology class in a public park last week. But then the chief of our college police department told me she could not protect me on campus. Protestors were searching cars for an unspecified individual — likely me — and her officers had been told to stand down, against her judgment, by the college president.
Racially charged, anarchic protests have engulfed Evergreen State College, a small, public liberal-arts institution where I have taught since 2003. In a widely disseminated video of the first recent protest on May 23, an angry mob of about 50 students disrupted my class, called me a racist, and demanded that I resign. My “racist” offense? I had challenged coercive segregation by race. Specifically, I had objected to a planned “Day of Absence” in which white people were asked to leave campus on April 12.
The other week there was an attempt to get Sean Hannity off the air. Bill O’Reilly, while he had other, internal problems at Fox, was successfully targeted with leftist bullies threatening his sponsors. And of course, periodically there are attempts to “Hush Rush.” And yes, over at CNN, there was Reza Aslan and Kathy Griffin.
But the Maher incident is the latest of these and it is important to speak up not just for his free speech but, particularly when violence is threatened much less used as at Middlebury, Evergreen, or Berkeley, to re-state yet again what should never have to be re-stated in America. Which is to say — this is a country that has a First Amendment written into its Constitution for a reason.
No society can exist much less prosper if the rights of its individual members are threatened — and if there is a hierarchy of America’s constitutional values, free speech is at the very top. There can be no Bill Mahers in North Korea — and for a reason. Irreverent comedians are a symbol of free speech — razzing not just those holding government power but any and everything in society that remotely smacks of authority.
Is it a good thing Bill Maher apologized? Yes. He made a mistake. And as his guests on his follow-up show made clear, it was a serious mistake. But not for a minute should he have lost his job. Free speech, among other things, implies the freedom to make mistakes. And move on.