Comedian Bill Maher has built a career out of dividing people into sets and knocking down the ones he cares for least: women, Muslims, non-atheists.
When he used a racial slur and made light of slavery all in one phrase, it was a new low, but a pretty predictable one. So it’s tempting to write him off and turn away.
I hope we don’t – at least not before using his recent exchange as a way to talk to our kids about being upstanders.
First, some background. Maher was hosting Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, on his HBO show, “Real Time.” They were discussing adulthood and whether it’s in short supply, the topic of Sasse’s new book.
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Sasse invited Maher to visit Nebraska sometime: “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.” And Maher replied: “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house (racial slur).”
The audience groaned, then laughed a bit. The show went on.
A few hours later, Sasse hopped on Twitter to offer a bit of a mea culpa for not pushing back on Maher’s language.
“Am walking off a redeye from LAX,” he tweeted, in four parts. “3 reflections on @billmaher 1. I’m a 1st Amendment absolutist. Comedians get latitude to cross hard lines.
“2. But free speech comes with a responsibility to speak up when folks use that word. Me just cringing last night wasn’t good enough.
“3. Here’s what I wish I’d been quick enough to say in the moment: ‘Hold up, why would you think it’s OK to use that word? …
“ … The history of the n-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It’s therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don’t use it.’”
It’s easy to get tripped up when someone makes an insensitive comment or joke to us or in our presence. It’s easier to call them on it if you’ve thought through such a scenario and discussed some responses.
Sasse had the benefit of a few hours and a very public platform (Twitter) to offer his reply. Most people, including our kids, don’t.
We owe it to them – and to this nation’s ability to evolve – to prepare them.
Kids have a finely tuned sense of justice. Try telling a pair of siblings that one of them gets 15 minutes of screen time before dinner and the other gets 16 and you'll see just how finely tuned.
They’re on the lookout for inequity. They spot it in family dynamics, classroom exchanges and friendships. They know when they’re getting a fair shake and when they’re not.
We can teach them to use that same sharp sense to look out for others, not just themselves. And when they hear casual racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, we can help them call it out.
Appropriate answers will vary, obviously, depending on kids’ ages and personalities. But a simple “I’m not OK with that word” is a good start.
And the Maher/Sasse moment is a good excuse to arm them with it.