Editor’s Note: Joseph Holt is an ethics professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. He is a former Jesuit priest and corporate attorney. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The public utterances of Roseanne Barr have long brought to my mind the title of the country song “From the Gutter to You Ain’t Up.” But she took it to a new level Tuesday when she posted a racist tweet describing Valerie Jarrett, who is black and a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, as the offspring of “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.” Even for her, that was low.
ABC quickly and admirably did the right thing by canceling “Roseanne.” ABC president Channing Dungey explained that, “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is ‘abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.’”
Barr apologized Tuesday to Jarrett and “all Americans” for “making a bad joke about her politics and her looks.” She acknowledged she “should have known better” and that her joke “was in bad taste.” She also apologized to the many writers and actors who are now unemployed thanks to her incivility.
The apologies and hard consequences of having her show canceled and being dropped by her talent agency might have put the matter to rest. But on Wednesday Barr made the mistake of taking to Twitter again to lash out at ABC and her co-stars.
She started by saying her outrageous comment had something to do with having taken her sleep aid, Ambien. Sanofi, the manufacturer of that product, responded that “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
In a breathtaking series of retweets, she then implied that ABC had applied a double standard, since it tolerated a Keith Olbermann tirade against President Donald Trump, and claimed that Disney treated Harvey Weinstein better than it treated her. (She later deleted some of her tweets and retweets.)
All of which indicates Barr still doesn’t get it.
ABC got that there are basic standards of decency in a civil society comprised of a rich mix of people and that observing them matters. Whether they get that on moral grounds or just get that they’d lose advertisers, as Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham had, I’m not sure. I suspect it was a combination of both, and concern about lost advertising revenue is compatible with genuine moral concern. But either way, they get it.
Barr still doesn’t get that decency matters. If she did, she wouldn’t be acting as if perceptions of her being treated unfairly matter more than her indecency. She would be looking at the person in the mirror rather than lashing out at others.
The other thing that Barr, like the President with whom she is in a mutual fan club, still doesn’t get is that it’s not about them; it’s about all the people negatively affected by them.
Barr makes a plainly racist comment about a civil servant who always conducted herself with grace, dignity and intelligence, and she is acting as if what is most important is that some believe she’s not being treated fairly. Really?
President Trump definitely believes it’s always about him. At a time of growing racial tension, you would expect the leader of the nation to address the problem as President Obama tried to at the “beer summit” involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and the white police officer investigating a report of a break-in who arrested Gates on the porch of his own home.
But Trump clearly believed that something far more important than racial harmony was at play in all this: his self-image. He took to Twitter asking why ABC’s Bob Iger hadn’t apologized to him for “horrible statements made and said about me on ABC.”
(White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later explained that Trump was talking about a “double standard” and added, “No one is defending her comments. They were inappropriate.”)
The American people are famously forgiving when leaders and celebrities own up to their mistakes and are contrite about them. But forgiveness is not forthcoming when there is no accountability and apologies are insincere.
ABC was genuinely sorry the star of one of its shows had made a racist comment and will likely not suffer in terms of ratings or advertising revenues as a result. Barr herself initially seemed to be genuinely sorry, but her subsequent actions make clear that she isn’t.
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Meanwhile, the President is never sorry for anything and famously never apologizes. And so far he has been able to get away with his own racism and incivility.
But he may be truly sorry come the elections in which his own reality show is canceled.