Imagine if then-Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac had gently alerted Jon Stewart to his opinion that the host’s impression of Herman Cain “sounded like Kingfish” — and instead of blowing up and dropping an F-bomb, as Stewart reportedly did, the host had taken a beat to think about that critique, and then come back and said, “Hey, you’re right. Let’s drop the impression. Do you have any good ideas for how to target this guy?”
Or imagine if, when Stewart had similarly been called out on the lack of women on his staff and the reports that his workplace was inhospitable to those women who were there, he had done some genuine soul-searching, instead of making fun of Jezebel on air with the immortal line, “Jezebel thinks I’m a sexist prick.” Reports like these suggest that Stewart may be like many celebrities, powerful figures who get so comfortable with their role that they lose the ability to take genuine criticism, particularly from their purported allies. Stewart’s alleged hot temper may take control no matter what subject someone’s challenging him on, and it may simply be part and parcel with his perfectionism and the pressure of a daily show, and the spotlight. But in an environment dominated by white men, women and people of color will likely end up feeling, as Cenac did, incredibly “alone” if they’re that temper’s target.
Taylor Swift is another example of a celebrity who might have listened instead of lashing out. Wouldn’t it have been fabulous if (as Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes suggested earlier this week), rather than responding to Nicki Minaj’s observations about sizeism and racism in music as though they constituted a personal attack on her, she had just considered Minaj’s point, or even (gasp!) amplified it? Swift and Stewart are leading figures in their respective fields. But this kind of “What, me? No, you!” response happens everywhere callouts are now taking place — from YA literature communities to, as we learned today, professional wrestling. Even leftish presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley aren’t immune to these kinds of confrontations.
Sometimes “call out” criticism is overly broad, or over the top. But usually it contains at least some truth. And the exciting and fascinating thing about our current cultural moment is that basic social justice principles have begun to filter out from the activist spaces that were once traditionally the province of “calling out” — to the extent that the biggest pop stars and comedians in the world are now having to face being called on their prejudices, mistakes, and subsequent defensiveness. This is good. No one gets a pass. Yet maybe all of us, celebrities and regular humans, should learn lessons from the flame wars that have raged for years in online and activist sectors — and the mistakes people make over and over again.
For instance, both Stewart and Swift have positioned themselves, with the help of the media, as good role models, wholesome and progressive voices of a generation. Like many activists or writers, they suffer from “But I’m one of the good guys” syndrome, which explains why Swift used faux feminism to turn on Minaj.
This is a problem because when you see yourself as “good,” the concept of being racist or sexist (or transphobic, ableist, etc.) triggers a disconnect because it punctures that self-image. Yet as Cenac himself said of Stewart’s Cain impression, “I don’t think this is from a malicious place, but I think this is from a naïve, ignorant place… Oh no, you just did this and you didn’t think about it. It was just the voice that came into your head.”
It’s important to think about moments of prejudice that get flagged as a failure to deprogram oneself from society’s structural “isms,” more than as arising from Dr. Evil-style overt ill intentions. (Indeed, thinking of racism as the province of Dr. Evil has created our bizarre problem of treating accusations of racism as more damning than racism itself.) On the flip-side, that’s why critics get so frustrated when people declare that their good intentions somehow absolve them. They don’t. People with good intentions mess up all the time. In fact, people who spend all their time on the Internet telling other people they mess up also mess up, and then have to apologize. It’s part of being human.
Basically, I wish that all of us, celebrities and everyday humans alike, would commit these sentences to our hearts: “That’s an interesting point. I hear you, and will seriously consider what you’ve said.” Then, of course, you have to actually think about the criticism — you can’t just diffuse tension by making an empty promise. And this usually leads to a apology, a small change, a future shift (look at the way Bernie Sanders has started scrutinizing the Sandra Bland case after being “called out” for ignoring racism and criminal justice issues), a systemic overhaul, or, in the case of Ashley Judd apologizing for slamming all hip hop as misogynist, a statement like: “I fully capitulate to your rightness.”
At the very least, highly paid PR types are clearly getting the message, with Taylor Swift mea culpa-ing on Twitter, followed by Hulk Hogan apologizing for his racist rant with the assertion that he’s not only not racist, but not anything-else-ist either: “every person in the world is important and should not be treated differently based on race, gender, orientation, religious beliefs or otherwise.” This is a sign of the times. It’s amazing how much a sincere-sounding apology or (preferably) a real change can help boost someone’s public image — and that so many people refuse to take responsibility after they’ve been called out, regardless. Jon Stewart, we’re waiting.