John Oliver’s Weak Case for Callout Culture

Why the HBO host is wrong that public shaming encourages public accountability

John Oliver
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

On the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight, an HBO show that often sounds as if The Daily Show and The Rachel Maddow Show had combined their writers’ rooms, John Oliver dedicated his monologue to public shaming.

After a brief survey of excesses culled from local television-news reports, the host said, “You may be expecting me to say that all public shaming is bad, but I don’t actually think that.” In his estimation, “misdirected internet pile-ons can completely destroy people’s lives.” But if public shaming is “well directed,” then “a lot of good can come out of it. If someone is caught doing something racist or a powerful person is behaving badly, it can increase accountability.”

The balance of the segment did not substantiate his thesis.

As an example of the phenomenon’s ostensible upside, he alighted on Tucker Carlson, shamed most recently for resurfaced remarks that he made while talking to a shock jock. “He publicly called Iraqis ‘semiliterate, primitive monkeys,’ compared women to dogs, and basically said that Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence for the sexual assault of his underage brides, wasn’t that bad,” Oliver observed. “Tucker refused to apologize, and all week long there have been trending hashtags like #BoycottTuckerCarlson.”

The case is “a good example of an internet pile-on being merited,” Oliver continued, setting forth these standards: “He’s a public figure, he made his comments publicly, they are appalling, and he’s standing by them.” Those are relevant, defensible metrics. (My own assessments of Carlson are here, here, here, and here.)

But it does not follow that public shaming achieves “a lot of good” or “accountability.”

In The Stranger, Katie Herzog argued that Carlson’s public shaming “may have made the public shamers feel good,” but that it “accomplished precisely nothing.” He did not apologize. He’s still on the air. His ratings aren’t lower.

What was accomplished?

It’s possible that the shaming’s overall societal effects were negative. Offensive remarks that would’ve been lost to memory were resurfaced in a way that perhaps upset some Iraqis, women, or victims of statutory rape, among others. The fact that Carlson declined to apologize while suffering no consequences perhaps undermined anti-bigotry taboos and surely did not strengthen them.

Oliver next turned to the parents caught bribing their kids’ way into college. “I’ve got no problem making fun of the parents doing that or the guy who ran that service,” he said. I don’t have a problem with such jokes either—though some of the parents weren’t public figures and it isn’t clear if they’re standing by their actions, so the aforementioned standards weren’t all met.

“Where it gets more complicated is with the kids,” the host continued. “How much is it fair to make fun of them? Well, I would argue one of them, Olivia Jade, is a public figure. She has nearly one and a half million followers on Instagram and has worked with all these companies. She has actively made money off her brand as a fun, relatable college student.”

He proceeded to show a video in which Jade talks about her lack of interest in attending classes. “Even before what we learned this week, that was a little tone-deaf,” he said. “Though not quite as tone-deaf as this sponsored post that she made for Amazon, in which she’s decorated her dorm room at USC with the letters OJ. And if you don’t see the connection between the letters OJ and USC,” he concluded, “maybe it should cost half a million dollars to get you in there.”

OJ are her initials, and O. J. Simpson attended USC.

It isn’t clear that Jade knew about her parents’ objectionable actions or that she would stand by them. Oliver nonetheless thinks she’s a justifiable target, because she’s a “public figure,” based on Instagram followers, and because she’s “tone-deaf,” having put her initials in a USC dorm room without recognizing a second meaning to those letters, connected to an event that occurred years prior to her birth.

I’m not taking a position on whether Oliver’s jokes were out of bounds, only observing that he didn’t actually apply a consistent “shame-worthy” test. Calling a teenager dumb isn’t doing any good or adding any accountability to the world.

“Now, I’m comfortable making those jokes. Am I comfortable with the whole internet piling on her? Honestly, that kind of depends on how and for how long,” Oliver said. “If it’s death threats and vile comments, then of course not.”

But aren’t vile online comments, at the very least, inevitable when an HBO host marshals his writers’ room to heap scorn and contempt on a teenager for laughs?

“If it defines her forever, that seems unfair,” he said. “The window for making fun of her is probably closing.” But isn’t being mocked by a major television show a determinant of how long a scandal defines a person?

In any event, Oliver snuck in another shaming standard: a window for mockery that closes relatively quickly.

“That is the difficult thing here,” he continued. “When joining in a pile-on, there’s a lot to take into account. When millions of people all feel the need to weigh in and do it potentially for years, the punishment can be vastly disproportionate to the offense. And perhaps the best example of this is Monica Lewinsky.”

The host admitted that he participated in Lewinsky jokes that he now regrets. Then he resurfaced a series of old Jay Leno jokes about the sex scandal.

“Those jokes have not dated well in any sense of the word,” Oliver said. “And they’re pretty rough, especially coming from a guy who just this week complained about late-night TV, saying he’d ‘like to see a bit of civility come back.’”

At that point, the segment took a turn.

In the middle of a monologue acknowledging that he had engaged in unjustified shaming in the past and arguing that we all ought to do better now, Oliver proceeded to shame Jay Leno for hypocrisy.

“You know, like that time he did a bit with a fake book about Lewinsky titled The Slut in the Hat,” Oliver said, suddenly righteously indignant. “And if that’s what he means by civility, may I offer my new book, Oh the Places You Can Go Fuck Yourself, Jay Leno?! Look! Look how civil I’m being! Look how civil this is.”

One could argue that Oliver was holding Leno “accountable” for jokes he told in the 1990s that now seem cruel and unfunny. But Oliver could’ve criticized the old jokes while still treating Leno as he treats himself: as an imperfect but not malign comic who told jokes that are regrettable in hindsight.

Surely Leno ranks low on any list of evil forces in American society. He doesn’t warrant a “Go fuck yourself,” delivered here for the supposed hypocrisy of making uncivil jokes on a subject and then, a quarter century later, in a polarized moment, yearning for more civility.

And whether one feels love, disdain, or indifference toward The Tonight Show under Leno, it was arguably more civil on average than Last Week Tonight.

Indeed, Oliver regularly goes the “Go fuck yourself” route, and it isn’t because profane shaming does “a lot of good” for society—it’s because it’s popular. The conflict-hungry internet ate up the segment; it circulated with a telling headline that is often attached to viral Oliver clips: “John Oliver Destroys Jay Leno’s ‘Civility’ Plea With Clips of His Disgusting Monica Lewinsky Jokes.” Last Week Tonight depends on a formula that includes a villain, a punching bag, someone to “destroy,” so that audience members can feel that they’re part of a morally and cognitively superior in-group, perennially exasperated by malign idiots in the out-group. (The formula’s genius: Virtue-signal charmingly with mistake theory, then go viral with conflict theory.)

The show excels when a subject warrants anomalous opprobrium. But the show sometimes tries to shoehorn dubious material into the template of righteous, indignant, maximalist contempt.

Giving Leno the indignant treatment is no unforgivable sin. Comedians have thick skin, and maybe they’re owed some of what they dish out. But Last Week Tonight does an awful lot of segments that begin as a nuanced look at a complex matter, only to devolve into finger-pointing. The show indulges the fantasy that what ails us would be fixed … if only we could take that malign, hypocritical idiot and “destroy” him.

The same self-serving fantasy causes millions to dramatically overestimate the amount of good that public shaming can do.