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Bill Maher's monologue on dialogue he'd prefer remain a monologue

by Jeremy Hooper

I like Bill Maher and like his show even more. But his closing monologue on this past week's show was largely off-base and misdirected:

Regardless of his personal feelings for the stories he mentions, Maher's take is actually the one that denies others of free speech and viewpoint expression. Outrage, pushback, scrutiny, reaction, boycotts—those are all forms of speech. When you start telling people that they can't have a reaction, are wrong for having an impulse, or that their reaction is too petty or off-base for your liking, then you are the one who is stifling expression.

I've witnessed thousands of anti-LGBT campaigns and boycotts in which some group that bastardizes the words "family" and "freedom" go apesh*t crazy simple because a gay person appears on a TV show or secures some sort of job. I mock these campaigns. I criticize them. I push back against them. I try my best to defeat them. However, never once in my over ten years of doing this kind of work have I suggested that even my most ardently oppositional group should be denied the opportunity to react in the way that they're reacting. They have the right to speak out. The way to defeat them is to put out a better case against them. That is how discourse works. Shutting down a person's right to react and respond is what the other side does, not us.

Personally, I don't care one sequin about what Mr. Dolce or Mr. Gabbana think about me or my family or anything else. Their opinions are not the point, even though Maher's glib comments about bedazzled codpieces make it sound like they are. The real point is that high profile people—and fellow gay people, to boot—who run a high profile company used a high profile platform to espouse damaging views that do very much hurt people who are still fighting for deserved rights. The anti-gay right has picked up on Dolce & Gabbana's views and ran with them (just today Tony Perkins applauded their "traditional values"), as they try to make a case against us in the run-up to the Supreme Court's marriage cases. And that I do care about. A lot of other people care as well. When politically aware people care, they like to speak out.

People who can't be bothered with these kinds of reactions to these kinds of controversies (which most always involve minority groups reacting to a majority, it must be noted) love to act like the response is due to some sort of carefully orchestrated campaign from "the left." But that is simply not true. The Dolce & Gabbana thing reached the heights it did because people were genuinely insulted that these two gay men were using their considerable media presence to go after decent families and their impressionable children. People spoke up because they had something to say. And they also had the right to speak up (thanks, America!), so they used it. When campaigns reach the attention level that the Dolce & Gabbana thing did, it's especially off-base for someone like Maher to step in and try to shut it down, or to act as if it was concocted in some sort of CrazyTown.

Maher also makes two very lazy errors that I'm more used to seeing from political opponents rather than allies. One, he acts as if those who had something to say about Dolce & Gabbanna are somehow being negligent about real gay rights issues like the font of resistance that is Antonin Scalia or the brutalities of ISIS, when the obvious truth is that people can very well possess enough bandwidth to express numerous concerns, all along the spectrum, within the same span of time. Two, he (around 2:30) sets up the notion that he's going to deny that he's creating a false equivalency between far-right outrage (which is so often used in service of discrimination) and far-left outrage (which is typically not), but then he just concludes his setup with a joke about the far-right crazies being the elected politicians. He never explains why his equivalency is not, in fact, false. He just rails on.

I should say here that there are sometimes controversies that arise on "the left" that don't personally resonate with me. Some that Maher mentions aren't things that I would personally rise up and take on. Some of them might even seem wrongheaded to me. If and when I feel that way, then I can try to learn why folks are reacting the way they are, or I can publicly challenge the campaign with what I see as more meritorious arguments. It's not up to me or Bill Maher or anyone to just tell the pissed off group that their pissed-off-iness is itself the problem. Or if I think the reaction is itself a problem, then it's on me to make a better case for why that is than simply telling an outlet like Media Matters to "shut the f*** up" for forming an expressing an organic opinion to something it and some of its Latino staffers did, in fact, find problematic. That's not winning the argument—that's denying the right to have one.

This is what I've always found so reductive about the "political correctness" charge. It can be form of bullying, in a way. It's often just a more neutral-sounding attempt at suppression. It's this holier-than-thou idea that you, someone with a specific set of life experiences and ideas and values, are the one who gets to adjudicate what is and is not an acceptable thing for each and every person in America to find fair or objectionable. That's just bull. Why do you and you alone get to determine which conversations get to be a one-way street? And this is especially true when it comes from someone like Maher, who speaks from a place of great privilege. And not only a place of great privilege, but also a place of great scrutiny. Does he really want to live by the standard that he's setting here? Does he really want to be told which of his public campaigns are too divisive or beneath him or whatever? Just a week before this one, he closed by literally making a case for the banning all fraternities. Couldn't someone else turn around and make the same "P.C." case against him? Or even on something like his Donald Trump feud of a few years back—aren't their tonal similarities between his dedicated concern for that reality TV personality and what he sees as the frivolous concern for these designers? Frankly, I'm a little surprised that Maher, someone who speaks and speaks so much about so many controversial things, would even take on this road. It seems to shaky ground for him, at best.

I also think it's interesting that Maher saved this rant for the last segment, when his panel is tasked with sitting their silently while he alone speaks his monologue. I say it's interesting because this particular panel was made up of two out gay men, Barney Frank and Zachary Quinto. I'm not sure how either of these two gay men would've reacted, if asked, but I do no with absolute certainty that they have a little more insight into the insult that people were feeling than does Maher, a straight man who has made his own lack of desire for children quite known. Personally, I would've liked to hear what these two (and even gay ally S.E. Cup) had to say. But then again, I typically like more speech, not less.

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