Were Roseanne's tweet and Samantha Bee's comments morally equivalent?

A communitarian view of ethics may explain why one seems so much worse than the other.

Tim Chaves
by Tim Chaves
June 15, 2018

When I read Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet that dominated news headlines for approximately 72 hours, I was appalled. I imagine (and hope) that most people felt similarly.

ABC canceled Roseanne almost immediately, releasing the following statement:

Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.

Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, said that canceling her show was the “right thing,” adding that “you can’t debate what is morally right” (a remarkable statement in and of itself).

The first statement isn’t out of the ordinary. ABC’s president, Channing Dungey, invoked the company’s values in explaining why they canceled the show. Those values, important as they may be, are created and defined by the company. Though the company has every right to enforce them, they’re arbitrary, and change as society and the company itself evolve.

Iger took it a step further. He invoked a more universal morality — one so rigid that it not only instantly justified the show’s cancellation, but that, according to Iger, can’t be debated.

Just two days later, Samantha Bee’s ugly comments about Ivanka Trump hit the news. The White House was quick to call for TBS to cancel Bee’s show (a move I think we all saw coming), and the President followed up with this inevitable tweet:

As an aside, it’s fascinating and depressing to scroll through the tweeted replies to the President’s question (do so at your own risk). In essence, the President’s question is the same question this post is asking — though the President is asking it rhetorically.

No response I saw addressed the moral difference between the two statements directly, though one in the first fifty or so reflected that Roseanne’s consequences were worse because Roseanne’s statement was racist. Most pointed out the President’s own apparent hypocrisy and use of “horrible language” in the past.

So, rephrasing Mr. Trump’s question: are Barr’s and Bee’s comments morally equivalent?

The White House is proclaiming a double standard. Is there one?

If we feel more outrage at Roseanne’s statement, why do we feel that way?

On the surface, the response seems simple (and was expressed in some tweeted responses to the President): because Barr’s comment was racist. Bee’s was not.

But why, we must then ask ourselves, is a racist insult more morally repugnant than a merely vulgar one?

The Utilitarian Argument

If you believe that morality is derived from doing the greatest good for the greatest number (and vice versa) — a utilitarian perspective — then you could argue that Roseanne’s comment was more immoral, because it was (or at the very least, implied) an insult against a large group of people. Bee’s comment, on the other hand, was an insult against just one person (which, yes, offended more people than just Ivanka — but you could similarly make the same second-order-effect argument about the millions more family and friends and supporters of those insulted by the racist comment).

The collective offense and diminished well-being caused by Barr’s comment, seen this way, was almost certainly greater than that caused by Bee’s. The world, as a whole, was worse-off after Barr’s comment. Since the overall well-being lies at the core of utilitarian morality, Barr’s comment was more immoral.

Though I agree with the conclusion drawn by this utilitarian logic, I don’t think we’ve quite struck at the heart of why many feel the greater indignation at Roseanne.

Imagine an alternate universe: one in which Bee’s comments and context remain exactly as they are in our universe, but with a simple alteration to Roseanne’s situation. Her tweet, in this universe, is a comment made directly to Valerie Jarrett. Only Jarrett hears it, and she never shares it with anyone.

The utilitarian argument that far greater offense was caused because Roseanne insulted millions through her tweet is inevitably weaker in this universe; only Valerie Jarrett was offended — only Valerie Jarrett could be offended, since no one else heard it. (Again, Bee’s case remains the same.)

Did this alternate scenario just swing the tide of morality with regard to the two comments?

An ardent utilitarian might still say no — it’s (remotely) possible that Valerie Jarrett was so hurt by this private, racist insult that her well-being alone was damaged more than the collective well-being of those that were affected by Bee’s comment, including Ivanka.

If you believe that way, accept one further alteration to this universe: instead of tweeting or commenting, Roseanne writes this comment in her personal journal, never to be seen or read by anyone.

In this universe, there’s no offense; no one knows or ever will about Roseanne’s private writings.

For utilitarians, this should swing the tide. In our universe, Roseanne’s comment was morally worse; in the alternate, journal-version, Bee’s was.

To me though, Roseanne’s statement (both in the private comment scenario, and even in the journal) is more morally condemnable. Maybe you feel that way, too. If so, why?

The Human Dignity Argument

Post-Kantian sensibilities tell us that all human beings have dignity and inherent worth — equal in quantity and quality to the dignity of all other members of the human race. One cannot gain or lose this type of value; our dignity is fixed from birth, and out of that dignity are borne our human rights.

When a person makes a racist statement, they violate that moral sensibility; by insulting a person based on a fixed, human trait — like race — they imply that one person’s innate dignity and worth is less than another’s (and that it has been since birth, due to a factor over which they have no control). Roseanne did that.

In contrast, Samantha Bee’s comment, which argued that Ivanka wasn’t standing up to her father on immigration issues affecting children, had to do with Ivanka’s choices. While the word Bee used to name call was undoubtedly ugly, Ivanka’s actions (or, in this case, her alleged inaction) were at the heart of the criticism.

Perhaps this explains why Roseanne’s comment is “worse,” if you believe it is. Roseanne’s comment undermined the concept of equal human dignity and worth; Bee’s merely criticized choices.

But what if we step into an alternate universe, one more time, to make a slight alteration to Roseanne’s comment? Instead of a racial insult, let’s imagine that Roseanne attacked Valerie Jarrett based on the fact that she has attached earlobes (as around 30% of the population do —and to be clear, I have no idea if Valerie Jarrett’s earlobes are attached).

If my intuition is right, this altered insult would no longer be the tweet heard round the world —and I highly doubt it would lead to the cancellation of her show. It would almost certainly not cause the CEO of Disney to argue that it was so morally repugnant that it wasn’t subject to debate.

Yet, this altered comment meets our above criteria. Like the racial insult, it has disparaged another person based on a fixed, inborn, human trait. It wasn’t a criticism of a choice or an action, but of something innate with which Valerie Jarrett was born — an outward expression of a genetic difference in a minority population.

If respect for human dignity requires us to refrain from insulting one another based on innate traits, and lack of respect for human dignity is central to the immorality of Roseanne’s comment, then this altered scenario should offend us as much as the real comment did.

And yet it doesn’t. I believe those of us disgusted by the real-life, racial comment yet unmoved by the hypothetical, earlobe comment have another step to take in explaining why we feel what we do.

The Communitarian Argument

Liberal ethical reasoning (not “liberal” the political ideology, but rather the freedom-based moral philosophy) argues that we have moral duty arising from two primary places:

  1. Respect for the rights and dignity of others
  2. Contracts that we enter into consensually (what we’ve agreed to)

This kind of thinking runs deep in western society. We see ourselves, generally speaking, as free to choose our own ends as long as we don’t violate others’ rights and uphold our freely-entered-into obligations. Those ends are ours to choose. And we not only choose the ends themselves; we choose how, when, and whether to pursue them at all.

(Don’t worry; we’ll bring this back to Roseanne in a moment.)

In contrast, a more modern school of ethical thought comes in the form of “communitarianism,” which arose from the work of several moral philosophers in the 1980’s.

Communitarian moral reasoning argues that our moral obligations go beyond just respect for others and upholding our contracts: that we we have other moral duties arising from from the family, community, and society we’ve been born into — through no choice of our own.

In essence, communitarianism’s most radical proposal is that we have specific, individual moral obligations that we have not agreed to. This idea is jarring to liberal sensibilities.

The key question that’s illuminated this idea for me is this: do I have a higher moral obligation to my parents than I do to your parents? If the answer is yes — that my obligations to my own parents go beyond my obligations to yours— then we must accept a morality beyond general respect for dignity and responsibility for our own choices.

No one would argue that I chose my parents; I was born to them completely independent of my choices. At the same time, I think most would agree that I have inescapable moral obligations to them — to care for them as they age, for example. Yet, this responsibility is not simple respect for human dignity; if it were, I would have an equal obligation to care for everyone’s parents as they age. Thus, I have a moral obligation I haven’t chosen, based simply on the context into which I was born (my “narrative,” as Alasdair MacIntyre would put it).

If we accept this logic, let’s take it a step further. If I have an increased moral obligation to my own parents relative to everyone else’s, don’t I have an increased moral obligation to my own country or society (another part of my narrative I haven’t chosen)?

The very idea of patriotism seems to say yes. As fellow countrymen, we’re not honoring those who give military service based on the merits of our reason for entering a military engagement. As much as we’re honoring their bravery, we’re honoring their loyalty and their patriotism.

Any US citizen who sits under the stars and fireworks on the Fourth of July, singing “I’m proud to be an American,” is acknowledging an unchosen, non-consensual tie to the country and society they live in. Any amount of moral depth, then, should obligate us not just to enjoy the benefits of our ties to that society, but share in and work toward the resolution of its ills.

Now, back to Roseanne.

As Americans, we’ve been born into a society that for several hundred years bought and sold black people as slaves and institutionalized segregation for nearly 100 more years after slavery’s formal end. Systemic racism in Western society, more generally, has oppressed non-white people in various ways, to varying degrees for the past half millennium.

This is the narrative we’ve been born into, regardless of our color. Racism, and all that comes from it, is an illness that has festered in our society for centuries. And as a part of that society, we bear moral obligations to to heal its illnesses and to root out its evils.

When Roseanne made her comment, she hit a contextual nerve that, in a way, evoked any and every wrong that’s been done to black people due to their skin color since the first slave was taken from Africa.

So while an earlobe insult would disrespect an innate human trait, there’s no context that it draws from. A racial insult, however, is the latest chapter in a narrative that includes slavery, segregation, police brutality, and lynchings. One that includes Selma, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and Charlottesville.

I believe that when many of us read Roseanne’s tweet, our communitarian — our contextual, narrative-based — sensibilities as part of the society where these things have happened are a key part of what made it so ugly to us.

So, in response to Mr. Trump’s question: “Why aren’t they firing no talent Samantha Bee for the horrible language used on her low ratings show?”

When you examine fully the societal and historical context and the implications of Roseanne’s tweet, Samantha Bee’s personal insult simply doesn’t measure up.

And how can Bob Iger argue that the immorality of Roseanne’s tweet was so clear that it justified immediate cancellation of the show, sans debate?

Because that tweet was more than just a tweet. It was the tip of an iceberg of inequality, discrimination, and injustice that the society we all share has yet to root out.

Thanks so much for reading,

Tim signature

Note: many thanks to Michael J. Sandel and his wonderful book Justice for influencing much of the thinking in this article. I hope I’ve done the concepts justice.

Tim Chaves
About the author

I’m an entrepreneur currently exploring the worlds of faith, technology, and philosophy. I graduated from Brigham Young University in 2008 and Harvard Business School in 2015.

I co-host the Faith Matters podcast and write a newsletter here on timchaves.com.

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