The first mark was HBO host Bill Maher, who has made comparisons (or allegations, perhaps) concerning President Trump and orangutans. The process was so inorganic, so mechanical, so obviously calculated — you got one of ours, so we’ll get one of yours — that commentator Dave Rubin took it upon himself to do a little strategizing on Twitter, advising conservatives that attacking Maher was a bad move, as he is “the last mainstream liberal who calls out his own side and defends free speech. Take him out and it all gets worse, including for you.”
Soon, an easier target presented itself in Samantha Bee, who called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c---” during a scripted segment on her TBS show “Full Frontal” on Wednesday. The expletive — a real rarity on this side of the Atlantic — has naturally attracted most of the attention, and indeed it earned an astonished holler from Bee’s studio crowd, but boiling it all down to the one word undersells the bit. Bee went on to suggest that Trump ought to wear something “tight and low cut” to persuade her father to stop separating undocumented families at the border, which struck me as the more obscene half of the act.
So far, TBS hasn’t canceled Bee’s show, which conservatives aren’t happy about: “Compare ABC’s reaction to Roseanne Barr’s tweet [with] TBS’s non-reaction to Samantha Bee and you’ll see a double-standard in action,” tweeted former George W. Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “There’s no uprising against Bee. Why? Because she is liberal. . . . The hypocrisy is sickening.” But Bee has lost sponsors over the incident, including State Farm and Autotrader, so more news may yet come. I’m sure Bee’s detractors, or Barr’s supporters, or however they conceive of themselves primarily, will keep up the strange fight — and, hey, Rome wasn’t burned in a day.
So it goes. We are now always in some phase of this cycle; the only thing special about this go-round was that it happened to show itself to be so intentional — not a case of people minding their own business, noticing a nasty remark on Bee’s evening program, and taking to Twitter in surprise and alarm, but an episode of seeking out something to be offended by, with one discarded, orangutan-themed false positive as evidence of the effort.
There are all kinds of reasons these vindictive cycles of provocation and retribution are bad news for societies in general but democracies in particular; such was the source of much early-republic fretting about factionalism. They’re undoubtedly bad lessons in civic virtue, especially if we still purport to be something like a liberal democracy, whose key tenet is tolerance — a tough asset to claim if you’re perpetually scanning the discursive horizon for things to be disruptively furious about. But they’re worse than that. They are terrible moral lessons, and they make us into bad people.
Interspersed through this whole affair are apologies swallowed by the din of the feud. Barr apologized, to Jarrett and to others, at various times, on various occasions, and with varying degrees of sincerity and seriousness. And Bee, too, immediately addressed an apology directly to Ivanka Trump, labeling her own remarks “inappropriate and inexcusable.” She acknowledged crossing a line and said she regrets it.
None of which will matter, because the habit we’re in of waging small-scale wars via celebrity censures has made us nearly incapable of really holding our allies accountable or of really forgiving our enemies. If forgiveness had a face, it would be hideous to us now; to the degree that beauty is a matter of socially constructed taste, we wouldn’t be able to look at forgiveness without revulsion. Forgiveness means having the technical right to exact some penalty but electing not to pursue it. This breaks the cycle of retribution with unearned, undeserved mercy. The face of forgiveness is bruised because it bears its own injuries with grace. So doing permits the cycle of retribution to go no further. It is a hard thing, but necessary, if huge numbers of strangers are going to live peacefully together.
It is crucial to note that forgiveness doesn’t preclude accountability: It’s possible (and probably preferable) someone can both make restitution for their wrong and be forgiven. In Barr’s case, for instance, stepping away from her public role makes sense, given the egregiousness of her tweet — which doesn’t have to mean that she’ll be persona non grata forever or that she’ll never work again. It’s the total absence of forgiveness from our cultural logic that makes any penalties whatsoever feel terminal, which feeds this toxic habit of ours. It doesn’t have to be like this, but neither can the decision to change it be left up to someone else. What would it take for you to forgive whichever of these two women who has offended you more? Not just to ignore them or release them into the icy waters of vague contempt — but to wish them well, or well enough, and perhaps one day give them a chance to make you laugh?