What-about-ism after Roseanne: How we play the comparison game
Roseanne Barr said something racist and her show got cancelled. There’s no need to spend a lot of time re-hashing what was said or why; Barr has a long history of racist vitriol, and it was only a matter of time before ABC decided she wasn’t worth keeping on their payroll.
The aftermath of Roseanne’s cancellation resulted in more than simple backlash from her fans. Her show was regarded as the sitcom for Trump supporters, so a comment from the Trump administration was certain.
The result was a nearly two-minute speech from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in which she began the “but what about MY apology” circuit.
“Where was Bob Iger’s apology to the White House staff for Jemele Hill calling the president and anyone associated with him a white supremacist?” she said, “To Christians around the world for Joy Behar calling Christianity a ‘mental illness’? Where was the apology for Kathy Griffin going on a profane rant against the president on ‘The View’ after a photo showed her holding President Trump’s decapitated head? And where was the apology from Bob Iger for ESPN hiring Keith Olbermann after his numerous expletive-laced tweets attacking the president as a Nazi, and even expanding Olbermann’s role after that attack against the president’s family? This is a double standard that the president is speaking about. No one is defending her comments — they’re inappropriate — but that’s the point he was making.”
There are a lot of factual issues with this response, but its motives come down to a few key distinctions:
By shifting the focus on to something other than what Barr said, her racist actions are dismissed. “What-about-ism” is a favorite tactic of the Trump campaign and subsequent administration. Anytime a problematic statement is made, one can simply shift the attention to someone else who also said someone problematic! Problem solved.
Samantha Bee was recently (and justifiably)criticized for her crass remarks about Trump’s daughter. The timing of her remarks in relation to Roseanne’s scandal prompted Trump himself to jump to deflection.
Of course, many people noticed that Trump’s demand for Bee’s firing and Sanders’ demand for apologies were more than hypocritical.
At the end of the day, deflection never works because of how easily it can be turned back on you. If you’re going to try and say “what-about-whoever” to get yourself out of a problem, you’d best ensure no one can reply with “what about you.”
The apologies that Sanders thought were justifiable to demand didn’t occur in the same vacuum as Barr’s statements.
Barr used a racial slur to describe someone who is at least two years out of the news cycle, and she did so unprompted.
Jemele Hill and Keith Olbermann were responding to Trump implying that Nazis are good people. Joy Behar was responding to Vice President Mike Pence’s fundamentalist Christian beliefs that often don’t coincide with his political policies. Kathy Griffin’s shock-factor photoshoot was partially conceptualized by her photographer as a symbolic art piece. This is not excusing any of their words or behavior, but the context surrounding their remarks is noteworthy.
Also noteworthy? Most of them did apologize, and did so without blaming their actions on Ambien. Context matters.
The idea that Barr’s comments and those Sanders mentioned are one and the same isn’t accurate, but for those who aren’t paying attention, it’s a working tactic. Trump’s attempt to deflect to Samantha Bee also drew false-equivalency.
Both statements are absolutely crass and inexcusable, but there is a clear distinction between profane name-calling and using a racial slur. One is rude and uncalled for, the other is rooted in systemic supremacy.
Accurate equivalencies require the same context and the same words. In this case, there are several examples of conservative commentators (ironically including Roseanne Barr herself) using the same word as Bee.
They never apologized and were praised by their counterparts. How’s that for equal treatment?
In the long line of comedians who have said profane things about politicians, it would seem that the only statements that stick are the ones made by women.
Stephen Colbert called Trump “Vladimir Putin’s c*** holster” on air. He was criticized, threatened with an FCC fine that never materialized, and the whole ordeal blew over in a week. No one ever discussed firing him, and his ratings weren’t affected.
Yet somehow, we’re still discussing Michelle Wolf’s comments in her correspondent’s dinner speech, which was more than a month ago. After Samantha Bee apologized for her comments, she’s still brought up in the news nearly every day.
In addition, three of the four examples that Sanders brought up in her press conference were statements made by women.
It’s almost as if women aren’t cut the same amount of slack as men. Men can say and do what they want, they’ll be told “no” and get a slap on the wrist, and then go about doing their jobs as usual. Bad press for women seems to linger a little longer.
The instinct to make comparisons (justifiable ones or not) to avoid talking about what really matters is a natural one, but it shouldn’t be our first.
If there’s anything that Barr’s behavior and the presidential administration’s response should teach us, it’s that the level of discourse in our country is gradually being chipped away to the point where no one needs to be held responsible for their own actions. Somewhere out there, someone else must have done something worse, right? I don’t need to apologize because somewhere out there, someone else didn’t apologize, right?
Wrong. We have MUCH bigger problems than Roseanne or Sam Bee or Michelle Wolf saying things.
Our first instinct should not be shifting blame. Our first instinct should be shifting focus to things that actually matter.