On many occasions, I’ve defended people on the left and the right in the midst of social-media pile-ons; argued against needless terminations; recommended articles and books, like Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, that thoughtfully caution against the overzealous application of stigma; and lamented that censorious sorts on the authoritarian left and the authoritarian right are trying to coercively attack ever more words and behaviors.
Still, I’ve favored public censure in some circumstances—and this is among them.
Without question, Barr’s excretion was protected speech under the First Amendment. But as surely as anti-Semitism is among the most odious social transgressions in Germany, dehumanizing black people ought to be among the most socially stigmatized in America, where African Americans were enslaved then subject to repression and domestic terrorism.
Stigmatizing such hateful, racist words is a social good that protects a clear, longstanding, vital norm. Its absence abetted horrific atrocities in living memory.
And Barr knew all that!
Failing to enforce the norm against a prominent celebrity, especially one working in the highly censored realm of network television, where all sorts of lesser taboos are adhered to, would threaten to undermine it.
And Barr lacks nearly all the mitigating factors imaginable in these cases. She is a 65-year-old woman, not an immature kid or a foreigner unfamiliar with the history of the taboo that she violated. At issue is something she just said, not a years-old comment needlessly dredged up. Her words seemed to carry animus. No truth proposition was at stake. She wasn’t in the heat of argument, or lashing out at a target who attacked her, or delivering a comedy roast, where transgressive insults are all but demanded, or invoking a pernicious stereotype to undercut it.
Finally, this was not an anomalous misjudgment in a career of mostly upstanding behavior—it is something like strike 3,000. Barr’s oeuvre is rife with flagrantly irresponsible conspiracy theories, some drawing on pernicious racial stereotypes. She even appears to have likened a different black woman to an ape. If social censure is ever warranted for non-crimes, it is here. And Trump supporters who bristle at the notion that their coalition is half “deplorables” ought to be furious at Barr for embodying that stereotype.
Of course, as I’ve previously noted, they ought to have been furious at Donald Trump, too:
The most dangerous thing a leader can do in an ethnically diverse country is stoke ethnic tensions in order to gain power. One needn’t invoke the Nazis to see that truth. Look to the former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, or Iraq and Syria today. America isn’t on the verge of civil war, but that’s in large part because, while the exploitation of ethnic grievances has always been part of our politics, our leaders have at least held themselves to a certain standard in their public statements.
In contrast, Donald Trump kicked off his campaign by encouraging his followers to think of Mexican migrants as mostly rapists, attacked an American-born judge of Hispanic ancestry, repeatedly savaged Muslims, inspired multiple hate crimes against minorities, used his Twitter platform, with an audience of millions, to retweet and elevate anti-Semites, and inspired more energy and assertiveness from the white supremacist movement than I can ever recall seeing.
Trump’s behavior has been much worse than Barr’s behavior.