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Why Bill Maher’s use of the n-word finally crossed the line

Maher’s use of the n-word is made worse by his long "politically incorrect" history.

Bill Maher. Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc for HBO Films via Getty Images

It was a seemingly innocuous conversation about Nebraska. Suddenly, it took an uncomfortable turn.

Real Time host Bill Maher and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) were at first talking about Maher visiting the senator’s home state. Sasse quipped, “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.” Maher then made his move, saying, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n*****.”

Maher immediately clarified that this was “a joke,” but the moment exploded on social media nonetheless. Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson said Maher “has got to go.” Sasse later acknowledged that he should have confronted Maher for his use of the n-word. HBO called what Maher did “completely inexcusable,” although it stopped short of firing him. And Maher himself later said, “The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”

This isn’t the first controversy Maher has been embroiled in. But Maher has generally gotten a pass for intolerant statements — perhaps because he’s on the left, because his shtick is in part about making offensive remarks, or because his remarks are often more subtle and come from the kinds of prejudice that many Americans are seemingly okay with. This time, it’s different.

What Maher actually said, and why it blew up in his face

Here is the full exchange between Maher and Sasse:

MAHER: Your book is so right about how we have actually kind of lost the thread of what adults are anymore in this country. Adults: They wear shorts everywhere, they have cereal for dinner, and they treat comic books like they’re literature. What is your prescription for this problem?

SASSE: More cereal for dinner. First of all, let’s not disagree about everything. So this is a constructive project, right? I’m not trying to beat up on millennials. But there’s something weird in human history if you can’t tell 10- and 15- and 20- and 25-year-olds apart, ’cause that’s new. Adolescence is a gift—

MAHER: Halloween used to be a kid thing.

SASSE: It’s not anymore?

MAHER: Not out here. No. Adults dress up for Halloween. They don’t do that in Nebraska?

SASSE: It’s frowned upon. Yeah. We don’t do that quite as much.

MAHER: I gotta get to Nebraska more.

SASSE: You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.

MAHER: Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n*****.

Maher immediately clarified that this was supposed to be a joke — to laughs, cheers, and applause from the crowd.

That Maher immediately had to explain this was a joke shows that he, at that moment, must have known he crossed a line: After centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and all sorts of racism in the US, white people in particular are simply not supposed to use the n-word.

As Wesley Morris wrote in the New York Times, “He didn’t commit a hate crime. He overstepped his privilege as a famous comedian. That’s all. But if he crossed a line, it’s one that, for white people, has never moved.”

Morris explained: “For a long time, black people have deployed slavery-derived hierarchies as a social and psycho-political sorting mechanism. A house assignment might have won a slave less arduous work but more suspicion and contempt from her counterparts in the fields. No one self-identifies as a house Negro — unless that person is making a joke. And even then that person probably shouldn’t be Bill Maher.”

The problem is further punctuated by Maher’s history, Morris wrote: “His track record inspires too much doubt to give any benefit.”

Maher has a long history of offensive comments

Muslim and Arab people in particular have long been the target of Maher’s ire, as shown by a video that made the rounds after former CNN host Larry King declared that “there’s not a racist bone in [Maher’s] body.”

Here is just a sampling of some of the comments Maher has made:

  • “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”
  • “Just tell me two things, [former One Direction member] Zayn [Malik]. Which one in the band were you? And where were you during the Boston Marathon?”
  • “The most popular name in the United Kingdom, Great Britain — this was in the news this week — for babies this year was Muhammad. Am I racist to feel I’m alarmed by that? Because I am.”
  • “Talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man. The reviews are not good.”
  • “Most Muslim people in the world do condone violence.”
  • “[Islam is] the only religion that acts like the mafia.”

Earlier this year, Maher also invited former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who has repeatedly made Islamophobic and transphobic comments, to his show. The invitation drew criticism, since it gave Yiannopoulos a megaphone to spout his bigoted views. But Maher argued that the move was necessary to air out and challenge Yiannopoulos’s views in the free market of ideas. (Later, video surfaced of Yiannopoulos seemingly endorsing pedophilia, leading the ultra-conservative Breitbart to fire him.)

In that episode, when Yiannopoulos referred to the myth that trans women pose a danger to other women in the bathroom, Maher suggested, “That’s not unreasonable.” When he moved to another guest on the panel, Maher referred to trans people as “weirdos,” saying, “Where do you stand on weirdos peeing?” (Maher said he did it “just to fuck with him,” referring to the other guest, Republican Jack Kingston.)

The bathroom myth has been repeatedly used against trans people to push back against their civil rights. The argument, in short, is that if trans people are allowed to use the bathroom for their gender identity, either trans women or men who pose as trans women will sexually assault or harass women in bathrooms. There is literally zero evidence for this, as I have repeatedly explained. But the myth has been used to bar trans people from using the bathroom for their gender identity, with several states passing laws or considering bills to that effect.

Gavin Grimm, a trans teenager who’s sued his school for access to the right bathroom, best captured why these anti-trans policies are a big problem: “This wasn’t just about bathrooms. It was about the right to exist in public spaces for trans people,” he told me, quoting trans actress Laverne Cox. “Without the access to appropriate bathrooms, there’s so much that you’re limited in doing. If you try to imagine what your day would be like if you had absolutely no restrooms to use other than the home, it would take planning. You would probably find yourself avoiding liquids, probably avoiding eating, maybe [avoiding] going out in public for too long at a time.”

But in calling Yiannopoulos’s view reasonable and calling trans people “weirdos,” Maher perpetuated the myth, suggesting it’s okay to keep trans people out of bathrooms for their gender identity.

This is just one incident involving trans people. Maher, who identifies as a supporter of LGBTQ rights, mocked Caitlyn Jenner shortly after she came out as trans in 2015. In one segment, he called Jenner “a white man” and suggested she should go on a date with Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP official who was accused of posing as black. The “jokes” denied Jenner’s identity and suggested her identity as a woman is on equal grounds with Dolezal’s claim to blackness.

It’s not just Islamophobia and transphobia. When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, Maher said, while playing clips of Clinton on the campaign trail:

I’m not trying to be sexist here, but I’m just saying that women try a lot of different tacks when they’re in arguments … I’m not being sexist, I’m just saying that men, when we argue, we’re kind of a one-trick pony — we try our thing, and then we sulk when we don’t get our way. … But look at Hillary Clinton … Because the first thing a woman does, of course, is cry … and then they go to sweet talking … and then they throw an anger fit totally unrelated to anything. … And when it doesn’t work, they bring out the sarcasm.

As a general rule of thumb, starting any statement with “I’m not trying to be sexist here, but…” is probably a sign you shouldn’t complete that sentence.

Maher’s comments exemplify why: He said he wasn’t trying to be sexist, but then he went on to make a bunch of sweeping comments about men and women by using the experiences and actions of a single woman. This is simply sexism by definition.

As Kirsten Powers wrote for the Daily Beast in 2012, there’s a lot more where that came from:

[T]he grand pooh-bah of media misogyny is without a doubt Bill Maher — who also happens to be a favorite of liberals — who has given $1 million to President Obama’s super PAC. Maher has called Palin a “dumb twat” and dropped the C-word in describing the former Alaska governor. He called Palin and Congresswoman Bachmann “boobs” and “two bimbos.” He said of the former vice-presidential candidate, “She is not a mean girl. She is a crazy girl with mean ideas.” He recently made a joke about Rick Santorum’s wife using a vibrator. Imagine now the same joke during the 2008 primary with Michelle Obama’s name in it, and tell me that he would still have a job. Maher said of a woman who was harassed while breast-feeding at an Applebee’s, “Don't show me your tits!” as though a woman feeding her child is trying to flash Maher. (Here’s a way to solve his problem: don’t stare at a strangers’ breasts). Then, his coup de grâce: “And by the way, there is a place where breasts and food do go together. It’s called Hooters!”

These are only a few examples. They don’t cover everything Maher has said or done throughout his career, but they do provide a glimpse into the broader problem.

Some kinds of bigotry are often overlooked in the US

Maher’s shtick has long been controversy — in what he often characterizes as a battle against political correctness.

Maher, after all, lost his show on ABC, Politically Incorrect, when he characterized the US military as “cowards” and the terrorists who hijacked planes on 9/11 as brave. “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” Maher said. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.”

Maher went to HBO in part so he could get away with comments like this. It’s part of his brand to make over-the-top remarks for laughs, even if they contribute little to the ongoing conversation or are offensive. In his view, it’s part of an important battle against censorship.

He elaborated on his philosophy in his interview with Milo Yiannopoulos. “I think you’re colossally wrong on a number of things. But if I banned everyone from my show who I thought was colossally wrong, I would be talking to myself,” Maher told Yiannopoulos. He later added, “You are so, let’s say, helped by the fact that liberals just always take the bait.”

It took Maher literally using the n-word to finally get some media outlets to hold him accountable. Perhaps that’s because Maher is a liberal, putting him on the side of most of the people who would be quick to condemn his bigotry, particularly against Muslim, Arab, and transgender Americans.

But part of the issue here is what counts as actual bigotry in America, and whether Islamophobia, transphobia, and certain kinds of sexism and misogyny really do cross the line for a large chunk of the population.

A Pew Research Center survey measured Americans’ “warmth” toward different religious groups, with Christians and Jews ranking the highest and atheists and Muslims ranking the lowest. And in studies conducted by Northwestern University psychologist Nour Kteily, researchers had participants rank different groups based on how evolved they are; among the set of groups provided, Muslims ranked the lowest.

Similarly, many Americans don’t quite understand why trans people should be allowed to use the bathroom for their gender identity. Many Americans really do hold sexist or misogynistic views about how women debate, argue, or otherwise assert themselves.

But many Americans are told that the n-word is inexcusable; it’s the one word almost anyone who’s even a little bit woke to racism knows is not allowed.

That helps explain why Maher’s past offenses didn’t cross the line for a lot of people, while his use of the n-word got HBO and him to apologize.

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