Their endless verbiage makes some long for silence — for the bliss of quiet and the end of the impolitic phrase. But it may be that the only way to get at the truth of who we are is with the jackhammer of their jawboning and the resulting discourse.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) won’t stop talking, and the more he denies that his words have racist intent, the more they sound choked with a racism intent on silencing others. In Hollywood, Sharon Osbourne talked so much in defense of the indefensible Piers Morgan, who declared himself a human polygraph test able to suss out the veracity of Meghan Markle’s experiences as a biracial woman, that the show Osbourne co-hosts has taken a time out. “The Talk” has gone silent.
In the world of red carpets and runway shows, one of the co-founders of Dolce & Gabbana, a brand worn by folks ranging from Megan Thee Stallion at the recent Grammy Awards to Melania Trump, has talked so much about his own personal prejudices that his reputation for enraging much of the fashion industry nearly supersedes the renown of the Italian brand’s clothes. And now, in a decision that shifts even more attention from his frocks to his words, designer Stefano Gabbana and his company have filed a defamation lawsuit in Milan. The suit — and the venue — not only address who gets to talk, but also aims to blunt just how pointed that speech can be.
Public figures stir the ire of a divided populace all the time. And all too often, they accuse cancel culture of trying to shut down their unpopular opinions. And certainly there are beliefs that should be banished from a humane society — antisemitism, white supremacy, misogyny. The wise voices that speak of our shared humanity need to be amplified. But sometimes those voices that are intemperate, uninformed and cruel can be put to use. Their bleak, caustic nature tells us something about our weaknesses and failures. We know what to shore up. We can see where the rot is so that it can be excised.
Johnson habitually spouts a bold opinion or nonfactual declaration into the universe, only to have the universe voice its displeasure. And then he appears dismayed that anyone could possibly have had a negative interpretation of his words.
Most recently, Johnson characterized his reaction to the rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 as something akin to a shrug. He was not unnerved because he understood that this band of vandals was actually just a bunch of folksy types who loved their country and respected the very law enforcement they were trampling over as they stampeded through broken windows and doors. Johnson would have been concerned, however, if the Capitol had been overrun by Black Lives Matter protesters.
The Trump-supporting senator didn’t fear the mostly White, Trump-supporting mob wielding bear spray and Tasers. He would, however, have feared a mosaic of demonstrators known for demanding racial justice. Johnson made these comments during a radio interview and he defended them during a follow-up, saying that his words were based on the incidents of violence that had occurred during Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020. But one couldn’t help but wonder why he felt the need to draw the comparison at all? In giving his crowd righteous permission to speak its mind, he aimed to muzzle the Black Lives Matter movement with hyperbolic fear.
Osbourne, who is White, tried to quash debate with her own fragility. When taken to task for defending Morgan, whose comments her co-host characterized as racist, she unleashed a torrent of her own hurt feelings. She enlisted a dramatic analogy in which she likened herself to being strapped into the electric chair for her loyalty to Morgan. And the tenor of her voice rose in panic as she spoke over her co-host Sheryl Underwood in a way that devalued Underwood’s words and emotions and elevated her own.
“Don’t try to cry,” Osbourne warned her colleague, who is Black. “If anyone should be crying, it should be me.”
For his part, Gabbana is aiming to silence those who have delivered harsh criticism. In 2018, the Dolce & Gabbana brand insulted a good number of its customers in China — and no small number of other consumers — with a stereotype-laden advertising campaign. A litany of racially cruel commentary later appeared on Gabbana’s personal Instagram account, which he said was hacked. The uproar was followed by the cancellation of a planned marketing extravaganza in China, as well as a videotaped apology that would generously be described as bare bones.
A year later, Gabbana, as well as the fashion house, filed a defamation suit against the founders of the New York-based website Diet Prada, which drew attention to the whole tawdry mess, expressed shock and delight over its role in the China unraveling and has for years criticized the brand’s creative output. This month, the founders of the site responded to that suit by essentially saying that the public square is filled with razor-edged words. Anyone with something to say that’s more than pablum inevitably draws a bit of blood; the truth, in particular, hurts.
The Italian brand argues that it has been recklessly, gleefully and maliciously assaulted by a thousand cuts.
Both sides would very much like the other to go silent. Wouldn’t we all like a bit of peace and quiet? But the ultimate answer to the insult — and the fear and the tears and the daily aggravating discomfort — is to simply keep talking.