White Bill Maher used the n-word on a live HBO Show Friday night in what smacks of a ugly effort to bond with Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Because Maher’s proffered apology came after a day of dithering, it reeks of insincerity. At this point, I’m vacillating between calling for his head for expressing an overtly racist sentiment in the worst possible way and thinking a long suspension might be sufficient.
Last week CNN fired Kathy Griffin for staging a photograph showing her holding Trump’s bloody severed head. Given that Griffin’s primary CNN gig is co-host with Anderson Cooper of the apolitical New Year’s Eve Live, her dismissal for being crude, gruesome, and offensive to much of the nation is understandable. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the arty, albeit gory, photograph has real value. Griffin was depicting a fantasy that millions share – a brutal end to America’s destructive bully-in-chief.
It’s obvious isn’t it that what Maher did was much worse. Griffin was punching up. You can’t go any higher than the U.S. President. Maher was kicking down at an identifiable group of people who were first enslaved than persecuted here for centuries. Griffin’s agitprop was political speech. Maher’s remark was merely repellant.
Although I am far from a free speech absolutist, I tend to believe democracy works best when people with disparate, even conscience-shocking, opinions have the opportunity to express them without fear of negative repercussions. This is especially the case when those who disagree are given the time to challenge and respond in a moderated setting. Still, particularly repellant or hateful speech by an employee can justify action by the employer as in Griffin’s and certainly Maher’s case.
As one of a handful of multi-millionaire media elites who have almost unfettered creative control over their product, Maher has extraordinary power and influence. His use of the n-word therefore normalizes a word which whites have used for centuries as a weapon to dehumanize blacks.
There really are no excuses for what Maher said. If anything, the context makes it worse. He was explaining why in his view he, unlike black field hands, is too special to work in the fields with Nebraskans.
Although I don’t watch his show, people I respect assure me that Maher provides a valuable and relatively unique service with often humorous takes on important issues of the day from a mostly center-left perspective. For this reason alone, it might be acceptable for HBO to impose a 3-month suspension during which Maher embarks on a listening tour in African-American communities and with the understanding that any racially insensitive remark going forward will lead to termination.