Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Roseanne Barr and the teaching moment

  • Trump-Roseanne-Barr-3

    ABC cancelled the TV show “Roseanne” on Tuesday after Roseanne Barr, the show’s star, made a racist comment on Twitter.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Nielsens-7

    Roseanne Barr, left, and John Goodman appear in a scene from the reboot of “Roseanne.”

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

So what would the teaching moment look like?

Would we recognize it if it happened?

What apology would be adequate, would fit the offense?

What would redemption look like for Roseanne Barr?

Everyone knows by now what Roseanne tweeted about Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman who was a key aide to President Barack Obama: “Muslim brotherhood&planet of the apes had a baby = vj”

And almost everyone has some sort of opinion about how bad the tweet was and whether ABC was right to almost instantly fire her and cancel her hit show Roseanne — a revival from the 1990s.

For what it is worth, Roseanne apologized, again via Twitter: “I apologize to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me — my joke was in bad taste.”

That sounds sincere and heartfelt, though it was muffled by later rants and excuses — sleeping pills made her do it. The comic later apologized a second time, not only to Ms. Jarrett, but to her fans and all the actors, writers, and technicians who worked on the show. Again, a nice thought.

Roseanne Barr is out there. It’s not like she became unhinged in this moment. Unhinged is her brand. And ABC knew this when it hired her. Dressing up as Hitler removing cookies from an oven, for a photo shoot a few years ago, went way beyond offensive and put many Americans permanently off Roseanne Barr and her “humor.”

Ms. Jarrett, for her part, called for this to be a teaching moment. And that is a fine idea.

But what is the lesson, and who is learning it?

Some years ago there was another comedy on TV that dealt with working class people and a working class main character. The show was called All in the Family, and the character was Archie Bunker — a bigot who never changed, never learned.

Moreover, Archie and his liberal son-in-law Mike, aka “Meathead,” never moved from their positions of right-wing reactionary and race-hater (Archie), and utterly predictable knee-jerk liberal (Mike). Neither ever understood the other, conceded a point to the other, or really respected or heard the other. Both men proudly wore the armor of contempt.

As such, All in the Family was a deeply pessimistic show, though there were some funny lines and characters.

Roseanne’s show, in this new iteration anyway, was far more optimistic. It allowed that there might be occasional areas of common ground, respect, and, yes, learning and change. The Conner family was not inoculated against questions of race, gender, or addiction. Pro and anti-Trump characters fought, but talked. The show actually respected the “deplorables,” whose lives it was exploring.

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Ms. Barr wiped out all that with her “stupid” (her word) and racist, tweet.

So the lesson here might be, don’t tweet unless you think first.

Or it might be that our country seems to be going backward on race relations and racial reconciliation.

Or it might be that TV networks should not hire troubled stars who embrace conspiracy theories and court controversy. Good luck with that.

But maybe the great lesson here is that, in this country, the conversation never ends, and the cure for speech that offends is more speech — wiser speech, respectful speech.

Speech based on respect means that we have to believe that learning is possible, most of the time, for most people, maybe even Roseanne Barr. And that some apologies can be accepted, maybe, maybe not from Roseanne Barr. For redemption is also possible. And that very few of us should be cast out of the human community, or human conversation, for keeps.

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