May 30, 2018

Outraged About Roseanne

Roseanne Hard Rock CafeTo the surprise of no one at all, Roseanne Barr recently said something racist on social media. Shocking, I know. This was met with widespread outrage, followed by an apology from Roseanne, more outrage, news that ABC had canceled her show, and even more outrage. Regardless of the outcome (i.e., the cancelation of her show, news that the agency representing her had dropped her, even pulling the old version of her show out of syndication), it seems that outrage in such a context must persist until the outraged have all had their say. It almost makes one wonder whether the point of much of the outrage is something a bit different from what the outraged usually claim, doesn't it?

I saw more than a few on the left celebrating the cancellation of Roseanne's show in a troubling way. "See," they crowed, "publicly shaming racists works." Of course, it works! Was there ever any doubt of that? If one's goal is to inflict harm on those who say things we don't like, public shaming is clearly an effective tactic. I happen to think that it comes at too high a price, but I'd never deny that it can be successful in this regard.

Most people are probably aware that Roseanne has a long history of saying bigoted things on Twitter. She went through a phase of trolling atheists a couple years ago. Some of you probably heard from her at the time. I know I did. If I remember correctly, she was on some sort of kick about how all atheists were anti-Semitic. It wasn't pretty, and I remember being surprised to learn a few years later that she was being given a new show and a national TV platform. It seemed like it was just a matter of time before that blew up.

I find myself less interested in anything Roseanne has said and more interested in the sort of messages we are sending with our outrage. First, we are communicating that saying racist things is unacceptable. Although I do think we are making a mistake by driving this stuff underground (i.e., suppressing it rather than changing the underlying attitudes), I have little trouble understanding why this continues to be an appealing approach for so many. It would be nice if fewer people said racist things. No argument there.

Second, we seem to be providing a strong deterrent to apologizing for one's mistakes. When someone says something we don't like, many demand an apology. But if the outrage and dog-piling continue after they have received the apology they demanded, this sends a powerful message. After seeing several such incidents play out, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would apologize for their mistakes. Not only does the apology not improve how one is being treated, but it often seems to result in even worse treatment. Maybe our president has the right idea about not ever apologizing for anything.

Third, I think our culture has likely turned a corner with regard to the use of social media for public shaming. For the last few years, I have been trying to convince myself that it is a minority of disproportionately loud voices doing this and that most people do not embrace it. It is time I wake up and face the fact that I've likely been wrong about this for some time. Publicly shaming people who say or do things we don't like on social media seems to have become socially acceptable to a degree I hoped we'd never see. I now recognize that this seems to be one of the primary reasons many people use social media. I'll continue to oppose this, but I think I also need to recognize that this is where we are now. As much as I dislike it, this is us.

Update: I've written some thoughts on the question of whether Roseanne's show should have been canceled here.