The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A society ripped apart by full-frontal incivility

Comedian and TV host Samantha Bee.
Comedian and TV host Samantha Bee. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee require us to keep numerous truths in mind simultaneously, which may be more than we can handle in this tribal moment.

What Barr said was racist and unforgivable. ABC was right to fire her. President Trump, having been Barr’s cheerleader in chief, was wrong to have suddenly found himself, according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, too busy to comment. He was even more wrong, once he turned out to have some time on his hands, to have transformed the episode into a Trump pity party, wondering about his missing apology from ABC. Trump can never forgive or forget a slight, even as he can never seem to summon an ounce of outrage over racism.

But we can, and should, which is why we must acknowledge: What Barr said was worse than what Bee, the host of TBS’s “Full Frontal,” said on Wednesday’s show. One was racist, the other was offensive. Barr had no conceivable point, other than to comment on Valerie Jarrett’s supposedly simian and Muslim lineage. Bee had a point, made in a way that went far across the line of civility, about Ivanka Trump’s hypocrisy over the joys of motherhood and her complicity in her father’s cruel anti-family immigration policies.

Here's what President Trump supporters had to say about the cancellation of "Roseanne” outside his rally in Nashville. (Video: The Washington Post)

At the same time, we must also acknowledge — we being people who, like me, were vocal in expressing outrage about Barr — that what Bee said was also, as she acknowledged, and without any of Barr’s smarmy Ambien-made-me-do-it takeback, “inappropriate and inexcusable.”

Think about what would have happened if her name was Samuel, not Samantha. A male host would have been out the TBS door, immediately, for using that vulgar term about the female anatomy. Feminism and being female are not a license for demeaning another woman. And Bee’s less-noticed addition — “Put on something tight and low-cut” — was almost as repugnant, insinuating some kind of sexual, or at least sexualized relationship between Ivanka Trump and her father.

Follow Ruth Marcus's opinionsFollow

What is worse is that, unlike Barr’s impulsive tweet, Bee’s commentary was a premeditated group effort. It would have been one thing for Bee to use the word she chose, instead of a less-offensive one, carried away on the spur of the moment in front of a cheering live audience. That’s not what happened. That word was in the script . Someone wrote it. Someone edited it. Someone approved it. And after it was said, before the show aired, no one associated with the whole enterprise apparently thought better of it, at least not enough to excise the remarks.

And another thing we need to keep in mind: Yes, conservatives were waiting for — yearning, searching for — an offender on the left to balance out the Barr outrage. Yes, the White House of all places, and Trump of all people, has no standing, zero, to rail about the offense. Not given the initial silence on Barr from Trump and the White House, and before that, on Charlottesville. Not given Trump’s own similarly offensive comments about grabbing women by that body part. The double standard is a yawning chasm.

Which leads to twin questions: Given that double standard, given the outrage machine waiting to pounce, what is the right and honorable response on the other side to Bee? What consequences, if any, should she and her colleagues face?

The impulse not to be bullied into reacting is understandable, as is bristling at being ordered to mete out equal penalties for unequal conduct — especially by those whose outrage meter was turned off for Barr. “Why aren’t they firing no talent Samantha Bee for the horrible language used on her low ratings show?” Trump tweeted on Friday. You know what? In my book, he’s forfeited any right to be heard on this subject.

But, but, but. The risk of liberals underreacting to Bee is similarly ceding any moral high ground. That one side has a double standard does not excuse the other from failing to live up to its own.

As with sexual harassment, not every episode rises to the level of a firing offense and permanent exile; we have to figure out gradations of reaction to bad behavior. If it were up to me, because this is a systemic, group failure, I would yank the show off the air for a period long enough to reflect the seriousness of the offense here, maybe three months. Bee and senior staff who ought to have known better should lose their salaries during this time. TBS should pay other employees who were innocent victims of their poor judgment. And I would have Bee and her staff use the time to ponder what goes too far in the name of political passion and political comedy. And how to repair a society ripped apart by full-frontal incivility.

Read more from Ruth Marcus’s archive, follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: ‘Feckless c—’: Samantha Bee apologizes for misogyny that delighted her audience

Christine Emba: The ‘Roseanne’ saga mirrors the Trump story. Let’s hope they end the same.

Brian Klaas: We’re right to call out Roseanne Barr’s racism — even if it deepens our divides

Gary Abernathy: Ignore the late-night hosts: The left does not care more than the right