On Friday’s episode of Real Time, Bill Maher provided a clinic on some of the worst white male verbal behaviors, and in how not to take full responsibility. In two segments, he illustrated deflection, microaggression, defensiveness, gaslighting, and tone-deafness. This was in the form of an apology.
On the previous episode, Maher referred to himself as a “house n****r” in a conversation with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. At the time, Maher apologists pointed out that Sasse had used an awkward phrase (“work in the fields”), a defense Maher used himself in this Friday’s post-mortem.
He begins the show with “Thank you for letting a sinner in your midst. Michael Eric Dyson will be out here shortly to take me to the woodshed.” This introduction was filled awkward laughter.
I realize Maher is a comedian. In case I forgot it, he reminded his guests repeatedly of this. But his introduction here sets the tone for his approach to the issue: He doesn’t really understand why what he said was so terrible, on several levels. He’s sorry that he hurt people, but he doesn’t really understand why what he said was so deeply offensive.
His first guest was Professor Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist from Georgetown University. Bill Maher, an atheist who proclaims his disdain for religion, has set up a confessional with an ordained minister. He is not going to apologize directly to the people; he is, instead, going to lay out his self-labeled sin to Dyson for contrition.
I have no doubt he set up this tableau unconsciously. That’s the point. It speaks to the depth of cultural programming: He was raised Roman Catholic, and this is what he has been trained to do.
The heart of the very issue is cultural programming: As Dyson says, correctly I believe, Maher was not being actively racist when he referred to himself as a house n****r. When Dyson and other black voices speak of the insidiousness of white privilege, that includes this deep-level programming that is so ingrained that we hear the phrase “work in the fields” and our brains immediately think of slavery.
Confessions are a fabric of Maher’s reality, even if he’s rejected Catholicism. Racism is a fabric of our reality, even if we’ve actively rejected it. It is, as Norman Rockwell put it, “The Problem We All Live With.”
Giggling like a wayward child, Maher starts his interview with Dyson by admitting “I did a bad thing.” While Dyson lauds Maher as starting from a good place, Maher’s body language suggests that he’s not taking this very seriously.
I think it would be fair and generous to point out that men in our society struggle with apologizing properly. We deflect. We use humor. We try to save face. Donald Trump has set the standard of avoiding apologies at all costs. So I understand that Maher isn’t used to apologizing, and it shows.
When Maher does apologize around two minutes into the segment, he first excuses Sasse (“It’s all on me”) then immediately contextualizes (“but he said a weird thing”). More deflection.
Dyson asks if Maher understands that black people will still be skeptical, that Dyson himself is taking
heat for even appearing on the show, and Maher’s answer is a mix of whitesplaining and obsequiousness towards Dyson himself. He doesn’t get around to answering the core question.
When Dyson asks whether Maher understands the need for all white people to be reflective on their abuse of privilege, Maher insists it “happened once… it’s not like I’ve made a career of this.” Throughout his statements, he inserts clichés: “We’re all evolving. We all make mistakes.”
Even when Dyson spends over a minute defending Maher by pointing out that a main concern is that “even Bill Maher” would say something so egregious, showing how deeply ingrained the privilege is, Maher’s response is “I’m not here to make excuses, but the word is omnipresent in the culture.”
This is directly related to Dyson’s point, and Maher’s use of “but” suggests that he doesn’t even get it. Dyson is trying to defend Maher by giving him an excuse (white privilege is so ingrained that “even” Maher slips up), and Maher is so busy defending himself that he doesn’t notice it.
Maher even manages to step on a landmine. In trying to deflect by claiming that this was more of a comedian thing than a race thing, he says that comedians are a “special kind of monkey.” He does notice this gaffe and takes immediate responsibility for it, at least.
Dyson concludes the interview with appreciation of Maher’s greater efforts in speaking to power. Dyson’s recurrent theme is that Maher’s gaffe speaks not to his personal racism but to the depth of racist enculturation.
Later in the show, Maher speaks with Ice Cube, who is promoting the 25th Anniversary of “Death Certificate.”
Ice Cube accuses Maher of having a lot of black jokes. When Maher claims his jokes are against racists, Ice Cube says that sometimes Maher sounds like a “redneck trucker” but says it’s his opinion. Maher accepts this but inserts that he’s never heard that opinion before. This casual invalidation of Ice Cube’s perspective is a form of gaslighting.
While Ice Cube talks about his feelings, apparently struggling to hold back tears, Maher squirms uncomfortably and interrupts with, “I think people watching this show right now are saying that point has been made.”
“Not by me,” replies Ice Cube. This is Maher, trying to make the issue about his comfort level, and Ice Cube responds perfectly.
Symone Sanders is invited into the conversation at this point and adds her opinion eloquently. Maher says nothing at all in response to her, but her comments are perfectly on point.
None of this should be taken as a criticism exclusively of Maher. Both Dyson and Ice Cube conclude their dissections with an insistence that Maher is one of the good guys who made a terrible mistake. As he himself says, Maher is a product of his environment, as are we all.
Sadly, Maher is a typical white male liberal who happens to have a national podium. His squirming, his defensiveness, his plaintive looks of “why is this happening to me over a casual joke?” are not extraordinary to his (and my) kind. I’ve even been there myself; I just didn’t happen to have an HBO camera watching me.
Several times on the broadcast, this was referred to as a teachable moment, so let it be one.
If you nodded along with Maher’s squirming, if you agreed when he complained that Ice Cube was taking him to task again, if you’re wondering why this is still an issue, I recommend you watch the clips again. This time, though, ignore everything Maher says. Frankly, his opinion doesn’t count.
Photo credit: Getty Images