Not Everything Should Be a Moral Reckoning

Elon Musk’s critics are trying to dragoon Saturday Night Live into a needless political fight.

Elon Musk
Maja Hitij / Getty

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Over the weekend, NBC announced that Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, will host the next episode of Saturday Night Live. This decision makes business sense, because Musk has a large fan base. It makes creative sense, too: His eccentricity is good fodder for sketch comedy.

But critics began objecting on moral grounds, first on social media, where some adopted the hashtag #boycottSNL, then in the press, where progressive anger on Twitter is often covered as news. Such articles appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and beyond. The Variety journalist Jenelle Riley declared herself “beyond disappointed in SNL,” citing three ostensible Musk transgressions against the interests of investors and the health of Tesla employees during the pandemic. Sarah T. Roberts, an information-studies professor at UCLA, tweeted that SNL is “promoting a dangerous know-nothing who already has a massive unearned bully pulpit,” adding, “Did he really deserve the reputation laundering?” You’d have thought that Musk had been tapped to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom, rather than to perform in silly sketches with Pete Davidson.

Americans are free to disagree about whether the polarizing billionaire does more good or harm. What rankles me is the impulse to force every cultural institution to pick a side in these fights, as if America could have no justice unless even a late-night comedy show shuns every figure deemed problematic by online mobs. A society as big, diverse, and fragmented as ours will never agree on who is righteous, and efforts to force a false consensus will only backfire.

The instinct to treat a 90-minute hosting stint as a moral endorsement was best captured in a CNN.com opinion piece titled “Elon Musk Doesn’t Deserve to Host SNL.” Its author, Dean Obeidallah, wrote that SNL wants Musk to host for the ratings, but that “the show, where I worked on the production staff for eight seasons, should do better than bestowing that honor on Musk, given his irresponsible statements about Covid-19 and his insensitive comments surrounding the transgender community.” (Musk’s comments about pronouns in Twitter profiles are far less insensitive to transgender people than some of SNL’s material.)

Obeidallah granted that good ratings are a legitimate goal for a TV show, but “at what price?” Citing Musk’s assertion in early March 2020 that the “coronavirus panic is dumb,” Obeidallah declares:

The pain for families who have lost loved ones is still very fresh and very real. What do you think these families will think about “SNL” for giving a platform to a person who undermined the dangers posed by the very virus that took the life of their family member?

To be clear, this is not about freedom of speech or silencing Musk’s views. He has a massive social media platform and can attract media coverage at will. The question is, does Musk deserve the privilege of hosting the greatest late-night comedy show of our time?

The answer is absolutely not.

I suppose late-night comedy shows could reserve hosting duties as an honor for the morally irreproachable, and Americans could exile from TV comedy anyone who has spoken less than responsibly about COVID-19. But the society that results is going to be rather humorless, and I see no reason to think it would be more moral. King Solomon couldn’t reliably sit in moral judgment of every prospective SNL host. Neither can Lorne Michaels. Yet many commentators are encouraging the SNL producer to put a thumb on their side of the culture war as if justice demands it––as if any other choice will traumatize families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

This is histrionic moral grandstanding.

Obeidallah is right that this controversy is not about Musk’s freedom of speech. It’s about the dysfunction that follows when a country lets differences in values color everything. But the failure to heap enough stigma on Musk and other cultural lightning rods of the moment is not what ails us.

Network TV should of course deny high-profile gigs to genocidal dictators, child molesters, and KKK members. Every society has near-consensus moral standards that shouldn’t be abandoned. But too many Americans are angrily demanding not only the maintenance of standards that most all of us agree on, such as white supremacists who give Nazi salutes are not welcome in polite society, but also the ostracism of mainstream figures, some beloved by tens of millions of Americans. These judgments are based on an ever-changing list of offenses, which are invoked unevenly depending on the politics of the target.

Pressuring SNL to enforce contested social norms invites arbitrary moral judgments that turn on mob passions. And even if SNL went along with the claim that Musk is unfit to host, it would not get its entire audience to endorse such a polarizing judgment. The show would alienate some viewers and erode its own position as a shared cultural institution in a country whose citizens can at least occasionally laugh together.