Lots of folks are dumping their two cents’ worth about Bill Maher recently. I don’t carry cash or coins anymore, but here are some of my thoughts on the recent “incident”.
Background: Friday night (June 2), Real Time host Maher used the phrase “house nigger” — referring to himself — after guest Ben Sasse (a U.S. Senator) invited him to “work in the fields with us” in Nebraska. Criticism was almost immediate, coming from several directions, and the defense flew in just as quickly. By Saturday, Maher had publicly apologized, saying: “I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive, and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”
* Maher’s fans (and detractors) cut across the political divide, which I suppose is one of the things that keeps his show on the air. One week he’s angering the right, and the next it’s the left. His fans excuse or ignore what they don’t like, and his detractors find him too abrasive, pompous, or — as with Friday’s show — careless.
* As for me, I’ve watched a couple of his shows, but never did like the “shouting match” format. Plus, I’ve never liked the ratings-bonanza that is “controversy for controversy’s sake” (same reason I rarely watch cable news). His documentary Religulous had some impact on me during my deconversion.
As for using the N-word Friday:
* Both the criticism and the defense of Maher were unsurprisingly predictable, but I found the “defense” less reasonable.
* “The First Amendment!” was one defense raised. Which is weird, because that’s about government censorship of speech/expression, which didn’t occur here. It was society at large that pushed back against Maher’s casual racial slur.
* “It was a joke!” came up quickly too — in fact that’s what Maher himself said on the show, immediately after uttering the contentious word. That’s also weird. I can think of many situations in which I self-censor my speech (visiting certain relatives, for example). In none of those situations do certain words suddenly become okay if I use them in a joke.
* “It’s okay because of the context”, others said. This is a more reasonable defense to me. The appropriateness of many words (and deeds) changes depending on context. The word “penis”, for example, is just fine in many contexts — including jokes — but I imagine certain consequences if I insisted on walking through the supermarket repeating “penis” aloud. However, I would argue that the N-word is in a different category; the situations in which it’s okay to use it are so rare and nuanced that it’s best if you avoid it altogether.
* “It’s okay because black people say it” was the most predictable thing I heard in Maher’s defense. As a lifelong white person, I’ve heard this every single time there’s a discussion of the N-word. I don’t know the best response to it. But I do know that I never excuse my behavior by pointing out that other people do it; that’s a child’s defense. Police officers likely get tired of hearing it too (“Everyone else was speeding too!”) Personally, I’d like to never hear the word again, from anyone, but I don’t get to decide what other people say.
* I give Maher points for apologizing quickly and publicly, and for using genuine apology phrasing.
* I’m a big believer that words themselves aren’t “bad”. Words are collections of sounds, meant to convey meaning. I’d like people to choose the words that best convey the intended message, and I struggle daily to choose better words. If “Fuck!” best expresses what you’re trying to say to me, by all means, use that word. It’s what’s behind each word that’s important to me, not the collection of consonants and vowels. For example, “rape” is — to me — a much worse word than, say, “shit”. Shit is something each of us does, some more often than others. It’s as natural and common as can be. Rape, on the other hand, is something we could all stand less of. And what’s behind the N-word is something else we could all do without.
In other words, Maher should have known better. He’s a grown-up, and public speaking has been his trade for a long time. Like the rest of us, he remembers when Michael Richards’ career came crashing down for using the same word in a comedy routine. In fact, I’m sure he can name more of these incidents than I can. By now, he should have very carefully excised the word from his vocabulary.