Growing up in New York, we knew how to quickly shut down crazy comments: “If everyone else were jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” we would disapprovingly ask whenever another kid proposed doing something foolish or morally questionable. It’s an apt question and one that I’d like to put to many Americans today.
In an era when our president has bragged about his adultery and is known for using vulgar language, we all have a choice to make — elected officials, everyday Americans, and comedians alike. Will we imitate the least laudable parts of Donald Trump’s character, or will we carve out our own path?
This week has been a real low point, culturally speaking, watching the public debate about Roseanne Barr’s infamous tweet and Samantha Bee’s immigration bit smearing Ivanka Trump. It’s all been a searing reminder that our culture regularly showcases the complete opposite of what I hope to teach my own children.
Civility is regularly and repeatedly dying a painful death in our public square. But I want to do my part to ensure that manners and decency make a comeback, because these are values I teach my daughters each day. The outside world may sneer at those values as anachronistic, but everything is so much uglier without such niceties.
Many things that used to be considered gauche or even beyond the pale are now justified. Yet whose mother ever allowed her to get away with something because a naughty friend (or frenemy) did it first? Certainly not mine. I can’t be the only one who was raised to be civil to others, and yet if ever one wanted to see Darwinism or Hobbesian philosophy in action, today’s politics and pop culture exemplify their brutishness.
On the pop culture front, the women of comedy have been leaders, charging breathlessly toward the lowest common denominator. Last spring, Kathy Griffin made headlines for posing with a likeness of a decapitated Trump head, and no, she’s still not sorry.
Then this past week, Barr and Bee engaged in a public contest to be the most vile, hurling racial and sexual epithets at women whose political affiliations they despise. It’s as if no one ever explained to Bee or Barr that it’s possible to criticize another woman’s political views without attacking her personally, including her appearance.
It’s also possible to dislike something someone says and to say so without slandering them, something like a corollary to the Christian idea of hating the sin, while still loving the sinner. Humans are complex beings, and we are more than a sum total of our political views.
Come on now, ladies. Using coarse language isn’t creative or funny. It isn’t even edgy anymore. It’s intellectually lazy.
Barr isn’t new around here, and neither is the long and ugly history of her “ape” comment. Bee announces she’s speaking as a mother before swearing like a sailor, joking about incest, and encouraging an Orthodox Jewish woman to tart it up (while pushing for Bee’s preferred policy changes)?
For all the talk of women being victimized by men as part of the national #MeToo conversation — which has brought a mountain of reprehensible, and even illegal, behavior to light — these “funny ladies” seem committed to showing that women can hold our own in maligning and abusing our own sex. Of course, invectives are only hurled at women with wrong-think, as defined by the comedienne telling the unfunny joke.
There is no recognition that the target is a human being and might be someone’s wife or mother. On the one hand, it’s easier to hurl invectives at someone you’ve already dehumanized. On the other, it’s hard to be funny when you so blatantly despise the target of your joke.
“Joking” that turns political adversaries into enemies is also bad for society’s cohesion and democracy’s continued functioning, further pushing us all into perpetually warring political tribes. We may not agree about particular public policies, but it shouldn’t be hard to remember that this land belongs to all of us.
What ever happened to comediennes who made us laugh? Or think? Those are the funny people we need, especially now.