Ian Buruma claims that in exercising their freedom of expression, artists need to fear the public more than justice, and rightly so. But in the era of Twitter and Trump, that norm has become very vague.
Roseanne Barr is an American comedian. Her fictitious TV character, who is also called Roseanne Barr, is a proletarian Trump supporter. She plays a female version of Archie Bunker, the blunt patriarch of the TV show "All in the Family." At the end of May, her show was canceled, but not because of anything her TV personality said or did. It related to a tweet from Barr, in which she attacked Valerie Jarrett, a former Barack Obama adviser and an African-American woman, saying, "Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj."
Some reactions were predictable, but still no less curious. President Donald Trump tweeted that Barr's TV network had said much worse things about him and that another comedian, Samantha Bee, should have been fired because she had insulted Trump's daughter Ivanka (calling her a "feckless c---"). On the other hand, Trump's opponents thought it was completely fair that Barr's show was canceled. In their eyes, Barr is a typical example of the kind of nefariousness that Trump often engages in.
Both responses leave something to be desired. For a long time, Barr has been known for her strange behavior. Her bizarre opinions on just about everything have no clear political color. Bee did indeed use profane language about Ivanka, for which she later apologized, but her criticism of Trump's daughter concerned Ivanka's lack of protest against Trump's treatment of immigrants. It was about politics, and not about descent. Barr aimed for Jarrett's ethnic origin, for the color of her skin. The comparison with a monkey had nothing to do with political differences; it was an example of pure racism.
Faith As An Element of Identity
A public figure like Jarrett does not need protection, by law or by social convention, from criticism of her ideas. But things change where animosity on the basis of ethnic origin is concerned. It is not only barbaric, but also dangerous. Whether religion falls under ideology is open for discussion. Many people indeed view their faith, just like their ancestry, as a part of their identity. While Barr may be severely punished by her employer, we can ask whether Barr doesn’t also need protection, in this case, protection under the banner of free speech.
In the U.S., that freedom is more strongly protected by law than in most other countries. But the cancellation of Barr's show was not, of course, a judicial decision. Freedom of speech in this case is not based solely on the law. The entertainment industry is highly sensitive to public opinion. When enough people believe that someone has crossed the line, dismissal is quick to follow, especially in these times of no tolerance.
The informal rules about what can or cannot be said depend on customary norms of decency. And those differ significantly across time, plus they depend on who says what and when. A comedian can usually get away with more than a politician or a judge. Until Trump was elected, presidents had to watch their words more closely than the average citizen.
Boundaries of Decency
Precisely because norms shift, we need comedians, novelists and artists who continuously probe the boundaries of decency. That is how we know what is and is not acceptable. Barr would have had reason to protest if she had been fired over something her TV personality had said. Fictitious figures are allowed to be insulting. Many people might object to Barr's character, but bluntness and even racist remarks are part of the act. The same applied to Archie Bunker.
If Barr had only expressed her opinions in private, then that in itself would have been an invalid reason to end her TV show. But what is one to think about a tweet? Tweets are personal, but also public; they are private feelings and thoughts that are spread in the public sphere, a type of reality show really, and therefore very well suited for a narcissistic windbag like Trump.
As a rule, we do not have access to the raw, unfiltered thoughts of other people, except maybe at a bar, late at night and after a lot of liquor. Letters to a newspaper have always been carefully vetted by editors to prevent lunatics and fools from reaching the public. Private remained private. This has changed with the arrival of the internet. Now, everything that goes on in the heads of people, no matter how strange, can be made public.
A connection can probably be made between the advent of the internet and the increasing public distrust of the elite and the experts. But this connection is not absolutely unambiguous. I think that the disillusionment with the elite is not only the result of new technology. It is quite clear that communication via tweets and blogs has fostered the idea that expertise is no longer necessary. We see this now in politics. In the old days, important political decisions were taken behind closed doors by men and women (mostly men) who were surrounded by capable advisers. Citizens, should they be so lucky, heard about these decisions in the newspaper, on the radio or on the news. This system was by no means ideal. But it undoubtedly prevented many blunders.
Now, however, the most important political decisions in the most powerful democracy are taken on the basis of the ignorant whims and unfiltered prejudices of a tweeting president. Trump is just as blunt as the "Roseanne Barr" character and just as nuts as Roseanne Barr. With one difference: Barr is just a comedian, and the president can, with his tweets, determine the fate of the world.