June 4, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The New Taboo
BILL MAHER, no stranger to controversy, has recently risked his job for the first time in fifteen years. For the use of a single word during one of his broadcasts, he has called down a rain of holy wrath, and has been accosted by heated demands from all sides that he should resign his position, or be forcibly removed from it. Well might one ask what word in our obscenity-obsessed and godless day any longer could possibly swing this kind of weight against its speaker. Maher broke the new taboo: he took the word “nigger” in vain.
I have always had a certain distant respect for Maher. He seems to me a man who is willing to speak his mind even against those who agree with him, and in this he displays a kind of uncommon independence and courage. Back in 2001, but a week after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and when it was just becoming fashionable to refer to the terrorists as cowardly, he dared to point out that the word “coward” might not be a very appropriate fit for a man who sacrifices his life for a cause, no matter how erroneous or abhorrent that cause might be. He was roundly reproached for this simple shall we say semantic criticism, but he never apologized for it (his apologies centered merely on the misunderstanding of what he had said), and had to be taken off the public network where he then worked. But what might have been the ruin of another man was for him but the stepping stone to greater fame.
Anyone who even occasionally watches Maher can attest that he has never lost this proclivity to defy those who support him, as is witnessed most saliently by his vocal and unpopular opposition to Islam. Yet this latest utterance proved a step too far, even for an inveterate scandal-seeder like Maher, and he was quick to apologize for his statement. Evidently, he found either his career or his conscience hanging in the balance—and in either case the episode is of some interest.
One can always perceive the stark silhouette of a society’s deepest pieties in what it will not permit to be the subject of fast use and ridicule. Censorship of all kinds, and particularly that which is effected not by governmental fiat but by social convention, stems always from one of two urges: from the desire of the ruling order to maintain its power by silencing or shuttering opposition, or else from a society’s protective sense of the holy and the good. Modern censorship in the liberal West issues mainly from the second category. For instance, it was not so very long ago that one could count on strict regulation in the United States of vulgarities, and in certain European countries, like Italy, of blasphemies. The United States thus revealed its devotion to civility and propriety, and those other countries to Christian piety. This is surely no longer true. Under the auspices of freedom of speech, all of these prohibitions have been worn down to the nub, and stand to disappear completely. It is no longer to God nor even to decorum that we bow our heads in these latter days. No other word escaping from Bill Maher’s lips could have brought his employers to reprimand him, nor him to buckle. Perhaps the only other words which might have come close would have been other racial slurs. For we cherish nothing any longer, save the vague hope that each individual should be able to exist without feeling himself discriminated against. Our new piety is the piety of tolerance.
Now, Bill Maher, for all that he is often esteemed as something more, is at bottom a comedian, and comedians in our liberal society are given a liberty of speech which is not permitted to anyone else. There is not a single act nor issue, nor matter how heinous nor sensitive, that one of our comedians has not pilloried upon the stage. Infanticide, rape, mortal diseases—all’s fair game. Yet the racial question is evidently not to be touched—at least not by white comedians. Nor is this the first time this single word has fallen upon its user: Michael Richards, for instance, effectively had his career ruined when he let this little word slip in a comedy club, nor could redeem himself even in an abject ceremony of contrition which make Maher’s apology seem like a stiff-lipped concession to merest necessity. Nothing any longer is sacred to us—not virtue, not religion, nor any mystery of human nature or human deed—nothing except “diversity.” We have replaced the sacred with this wretched sense of obsequious slavishness in the face of our neighbor, this hankering fear of troubling his soul or upsetting his holy equilibrium. We codify this in our “political correctness,” that ubiquitous vague commandment to avoid stepping on toes, which replaces divine will with the whims of the weakest among us. Is it any wonder then when those most subjected to this code finally throw it off in an act of indignant liberation? For truly, one can build a culture and grow a people around the sanctity of the name of a god, and laws which punish the blasphemer and the impious; but around this silly urge to spare feelings alone, one cannot even form up a decent self-help group.
And this leads me to the second question underlying Bill Maher’s gaffe. This word “nigger” does not exist in a kind of sealed verbal container, so that it and it alone of all the words in the lexicon causes such wrath and disease: on the contrary, it is but most salient exemplar of a trend. It summons forth the same angry instinct which brought Professors Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis to grief when they dared defy the growing racial animus now infecting our universities. All of this is but sign of a growing hostility toward whites as whites, an emerging sense that whites are somehow given by virtue of their birth some kind of “privilege” which non-whites lack, and that they must therefore some way or another be brought to feel shame for this. Shame, we are made to understand, even if very few will ever say as much, is the only means by which we may dispossess ourselves of our cruel “privilege.” The new censorship is built almost exclusively upon this idea, and would crumble to dust without it. It really is, as I have called it elsewhere, the glue that binds.
This censorship is all the more insidious insofar as it does not come from above, from government, but rather from “around,” from society. No court of law has come down on Maher’s head to tell him to retract his statements; HBO and various celebrities and journalists have done all the work. And it is HBO that has unilaterally decided that no future broadcast of this episode will contain Maher’s offensive remarks, but they will be expunged utterly from the record. Or take again Bret Weinstein, mentioned above, who had the gall to refuse to distance himself from campus on account of his white skin. The faculty of his own university are gathering against him now, calling for disciplinary action, accusing him of endangering the student body. Anyone who has seen the footage of him speaking with the students will witness in him the admirable embodiment of calm reason in the face of an angry mob, and will recognize that the only person in any danger that day was Weinstein himself. But our ability to confront the ludicrous accusations against him with the reality of what happened, depends decisively on the decision of private individuals: for the original video was most conveniently taken off of YouTube for reasons of “violating YouTube’s policy on harassment and bullying.” (One would like to know, harassment and bullying of whom precisely?) We are witness more and more to a creeping and purely social censorship, justified on the grounds of political correctness, everywhere accepted, no where challenged, except on the loose fringes of our society.
The going ideology would have us build pluralistic societies. I wonder on what basis they hope to accomplish such egregious utopias? Taking but one of the most advanced examples of such a society—the blacks and the whites in the United States of America, who have lived together now a quarter millennium—one really must wonder: how are these two groups alone ever to form anything like a pluralistic union, if the one of them is forever harping about oppression, and the other is forever tiptoeing about in fear of reprisals for behaving in “racist” ways? The past is heavy, too heavy to cast off so lightly as that, and I tremble to think on the future. For in a spirit which is best characterized as vindictive, non-whites are quickly establishing a new taboo, forging a new sacred and untouchable ideal, something lodged deep in the non-white heart which they call their “identity” and which they permit no man to besmirch. It is an ideal in which whites have absolutely no part, but before which they are made to genuflect regardless. Any who defy this taboo will be cast out and spurned—and it would be ingenuous in the extreme to suppose that this tendency will diminish in coming years, as non-whites become the more numerous and more powerful, and as whites diminish in both numbers and in influence. Nay, but matters shall so proceed, and this taboo grow to monstrous proportions and potencies, until the one group is able to forego its resentment, or the other group its shame.