There’s a good reason on-air conversations have stricter boundaries than off-air conversations. People with major platforms— be they television shows, podcasts, or large readerships— have some responsibility not to infect the public discourse by promoting harmful ideas, intentionally or otherwise. Public discussions, then, are necessarily more cautious and less candid than those we share at the dinner table, bar, or barbecue.
That’s okay. But people still need to be able to talk. And they need to be able to be wrong without being canceled.
The surging popularity of podcasts is more than a matter of convenience. Monitored obsessively by media reporters and speech police, most conversations on TV and in print have become stilted and uninteresting. A slip-up that would be ironed out calmly in debate with friends can be career-threatening. So can perfectly reasonable opinions when clipped, disseminated, and misrepresented on social media. Podcast culture, re-popularized in recent years by hosts immune to the pressures of the speech police (think Joe Rogan), is much more open, filling a market demand for candid, thoughtful, and generally respectful discussion about controversial topics.
Naturally, this brings us to Megyn Kelly. While hosting a conversation about offensive Halloween costumes on her NBC show Tuesday, Kelly seemed to defend the practice of wearing blackface (or “whiteface”) so long as it’s part of dressing up like a character.
It was okay when she was a kid, Kelly claimed, further lamenting, “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people.” Her three panelists, including Melissa Rivers, whose fame and fortune is built on political incorrectness, seemed to disagree. I would have disagreed too.
Kelly referenced a legendary “Real Housewife of New York” episode wherein Luann de Lesseps showed up to a Halloween party dressed as Diana Ross, wearing a suspicious amount of bronzer that was immediately criticized as blackface. “Who doesn’t love Diana Ross? She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day, and I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween,” Kelly wondered.
Her sentiments earned a brutal roasting on social media, where “Megyn Kelly” was Twitter’s top trend in the United States for the better part of the day.
Kelly is a world-famous multimillionaire whose habit of speaking freely has a lot to do with her success. She needs no sympathy or protection from critics. But when the dominant response to a bad opinion is fire and fury, it disincentivizes honest conversation and programs us not to question groupthink, on television and off, where the public absorbs cues from the media. It also incentivizes the dangerous bluster of polemicists who seize on mass exhaustion with PC culture to toss inflammatory and disingenuous bombs onto social media, railroading the sliver of rational discussion that remained.
Kelly’s panelists responded the right way during the segment, calmly but sharply challenging her opinion without acting as though she had just incited World War III. Indeed, Kelly responded well too. Before close-of-business on Tuesday, she emailed colleagues to say the ensuing conversation had changed her opinion.
“One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get the chance to express and hear a lot of opinions. Today is one of those days where listening carefully to other points of view, including from friends and colleagues, is leading me to rethink my own views,” she wrote, later adding, “I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry. The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep.”
That’s exactly how things are supposed to work. Bad opinions aren’t going anywhere, and we all have them. Through conversations with our peers and the media, we subject our ideas to scrutiny and proceed accordingly. If we don’t allow room for the normal process of debate to play out on major media platforms, we’ll be left with only partisan shouting matches and staid groupthink propelled by fear.
What we won’t have is healthy example of how to counter bad opinions, or disagree effectively with others. Had Kelly gone along with her panelists out of fear of the social media mob, they never would have had the opportunity to address her argument before viewers, and neither would the people whose thoughtful disagreement prompted her to flip.
Here, the process worked. The lesson was learned. But for a mainstream TV host, Kelly is exceptionally comfortable as a contrarian (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse). Thanks to social media culture, however, she may be an endangered species.