I think my favorite part of Bill Maher’s interview with Milo Yiannopoulos on Real Time (actually, the Overtime portion of the show, aired online) Friday night was the part when Milo said that little girls must be protected from evil transgender predators (the precise quote was, “Women and girls should be protected from having men who are confused about their sexual identities in their bathrooms.”) and Bill Maher responded, “That’s not unreasonable.” The whole interview was littered with such exchanges. Bill Maher insists that if one refers to a transgender woman as a man, “you’re a bad person.” The belief implicit in this indignantly stated idea is that people are overly sensitive about it, and that this silly hypersensitivity stifles the voices of older white men like himself who carry around antiquated (but hilarious?) prejudices.
It’s not as if I didn’t know that Bill Maher is always toeing the line of prejudice in his show and comedy. He’s fairly outspoken about his stance on Muslims, which is essentially that it’s not unreasonable to associate the entire religion with terrorism. Okay, so it’s not just toeing the line, it’s more like telling the line to go fuck itself altogether.
I’ve always admired Bill Maher because of his approach to politics. I like his blunt ways of arguing points. I like that he understands the workings of politics in ways that I don’t always grasp, that he often changes my perspective on this or that subject. For instance, he once angrily pointed out that there are a lot of politicians who come from a virtuous place and that it’s unfair to cast all of them into the cesspool of dishonest swindlers. I think it was only in a Facebook post a few years ago, but it had a profound effect on how I view the whole world of politics from then on.
However, I don’t admire Bill Maher’s views on political correctness when it comes to LGBT issues, race issues, religion/culture issues. And for years, I’ve tried to turn a blind eye to his obvious prejudice because I appreciate that he is a privileged older white dude who just doesn’t get it. He has the liberty of comedy, which grants him permission to be obnoxiously offensive without being taken too seriously. For years, it worked for me to just ignore that part of his entertainment personality, to overlook it and appreciate his many other virtues. But now, not so much.
We’re living in a precarious age. Donald Trump is president. White supremacy is making a big comeback. In response to the looming demise of American democracy, citizens are becoming more involved in politics. They’re educating themselves on government. They’re being more honest about their own shortcomings as voters, as trees in the forest, as it were. I think a lot of white people are forcing themselves to become more conscious of their own swirling, insidious prejudices. Now more than ever, we are beginning to recognize collectively that we must be proactive in our progress because when we are lazy, the termites quietly eat away at the foundation of our house of democracy.
Why did Bill Maher have Milo on his show? I read a tweet yesterday that pointed out an ideological correlation if not an explanation:
Having Milo on had nothing to do with comedy, so let’s just put that aside. Perhaps it had to do with ratings a little, with Bill Maher’s neverending need to be controversial a little, with Bill Maher thinking “free speech means having to have white supremacists on and listen to them” a little. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. When the Leslie Jones thing happened, I was disgusted like everyone else, and I made a conscious effort to not give any further attention to him. I didn’t research him any further, I didn’t pay him any mind. I was glad he’d been kicked off of Twitter and I hoped he’d vanish into a hole somewhere and never come out again. But then he got a book deal, and then Berkeley happened. And then he was booked on Real Time with Bill Maher, one of my go-to happy-place shows. So alright, I thought, let me see exactly what this racist fuck-head is all about, no pre-judging (of course).
And you know what? I watched. And I listened. And he was exactly what I expected. His accent surprised me–I didn’t know he was British–and his affect surprised me, but underneath the superficial stuff was the personality I expected. He’s an obviously damaged person who (as Malcom Nance observed on the show) is confused about his own identity and mercilessly lashes out at other people out of his own self-hatred … which, by the way, is a broadly defined profile for every outspoken bigot in the universe. Nothing makes him special. He’s not entertaining, he’s not funny, he’s just a smarmy, angry little person who contributes nothing to anything except hatred and bigotry to the world at large. Debating racial equality and LGBT rights with him is like debating the virtues of democracy with a dictator. It’s pointless, useless, and, most important, it adds nothing of value to any meaningful discourse.
I believe in free speech. I believe in comedy. I believe that there sometimes is a thin line between what’s funny and what’s offensive–and sometimes what’s funny and what’s offensive make sweet love and produce a beautiful, bouncing baby–but I think it all hinges perilously on the brutally honest self-awareness of the comedian.
We enjoy the freedom of the First Amendment, and I believe in Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to say whatever the hell he wants, no matter how ugly and fucking stupid it is. I also believe in a publisher’s right to publish his inevitably stupid fucking book. Finally, I believe in Bill Maher’s right to have him on his show to “debate” the virtues of equal rights for transgender people, even though EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ANYONE SHOULD NOT EVER BE UP FOR DEBATE. But I also believe that people have a right to be sensitive, especially now. And they have a right to call it out as offensive and ridiculous and unacceptable. I believe it’s not “freaking out” to boycott the show in protest, as Jeremy Scahill did.
But more than any other part of this whole troubling thing, there’s the problem I find in myself. My inclination to turn a blind eye to the prejudices of people I most admire makes me complicit in the fungus of bigotry that’s grown quietly in our culture during my lifetime. Despite my best efforts to be self-aware, to acknowledge my own prejudices every day of my life, to try to give myself cognitive therapy in the hope of eradicating my learned prejudices. Despite all of it, in turning a blind eye to the subtle prejudices of others, the lack of self-awareness in others, I have participated in the insidious spread of bigotry in our culture. And I think it’s time for me to do better. It’s time for all of us to do better.