By Brett Yates
Why do celebrities ever apologize for anything? What does it do, exactly?
Does it ever change anyone’s mind about whatever’s happened? When it comes to people whom we don’t know in real life, explanations are probably more appropriate than apologies. Regret and sympathy, contrition and forgiveness—these are the acts and emotions of private life. About our friends, we have feelings, and we may disregard our sense of justice in order to overlook their failings, owing to the mercy that comes from helpless compassion and love. About celebrities, however, we primarily have opinions; we evaluate what they do and say and whether or not we like it, and that’s usually the extent of our connection. Our views regarding a celebrity’s conduct may be affected by her clarifications or elucidations, but there is no personal relationship that an appeal to clemency reasonably might seek to salvage. Imagine if your TV randomly broke six months after purchase, but in the midst of sputtering to its fuzzy, staticky end, its speakers issued a faint verbal apology: who cares?
In the case of the comedian Kathy Griffin, who released a photograph of herself holding up a mask representing the bloodied, severed head of Donald Trump at the end of May, her YouTube apology felt like a last-ditch attempt to retain whatever remaining corporate sponsors hadn’t yet cut ties, and I’m sure it didn’t work. Even Squatty Potty—a product so embarrassing that it’s hard to imagine anyone but Kathy Griffin endorsing it—waddled away from the controversial insult-comic.
Kathy Griffin has been saying and doing “offensive” things for decades; that’s her entire schtick. The Trump photoshoot became her undoing because it presented such a valuable opportunity for virtue signaling on both sides of the political spectrum. Democrats and Republicans alike saw it as an occasion to demonstrate their commitment to civil discourse and their hatred of hypocrisy. Conservatives identified the gory photo as a historic low point in political commentary and, while affirming their belief in the right to free speech, wished for a world in which their opponents might nevertheless refrain from stooping to visual threats of violence in order to make known their distaste for the 45th president. They bemoaned the heartless double standards of liberals whose infamous “safe spaces” apparently still allowed for gruesomeness and brutality as long as it was directed rightward.
Liberals, for their part, made equal haste to speak up against Griffin, even as conservatives accused them of failing to do so. It was very important, they felt, for the rest of the political universe to know that their commitment to decorum was nonpartisan: while they, too, disliked Trump, they disapproved of Griffin’s tactics just as much as they disapproved of the Tea Party supporters who lynched Obama effigies in 2010—no matter that one of these things was an art project, while the other deliberately spoke to a national history of real, institutionalized violence against African-Americans. With just a touch of wounded aggression, liberals wondered where those conservatives, now so upset by Griffin’s grisly imagery, had been when their own kind had been issuing threats of carnage in the time of our 44th president. But in doing so, they acknowledged that Griffin’s behavior was no different from that of the meanest deep-red “deplorable”: depictions of violence against heads of state were despicable under any circumstances.
What is this whole dance all about? In this moment of hostility and division, people are clinging more than ever to the idea that civility can save us: we may disagree, but we must always treat one another with respect. That’ll work, right? Liberals, I think, are mostly honest in this belief: they have faith that low blows and cheap shots and irresponsible anger—irrespective of their target—cannot improve our nation.
Meanwhile, conservatives elected a man who is the antithesis of “decency” and “civility” as commonly defined, but are now performing a kind of jiu-jitsu to prevent their opponents from combating their president on the level at which he most commonly operates. If liberals stand against intolerance and disrespect, they must then tolerate and respect Trump, mustn’t they? If they condemn Trump as a bully, they must not bully him in turn. These self-declared paragons of civilization must, logically, live up to the standards they seek to impose on everyone else. About 75 percent of liberals generally fall for this trap, because they think that virtue (in the form of politeness, intelligence, neighborliness, reason—anything except hardline leftist ideology), not winning elections, will somehow save us all eventually.
Here’s what Kathy Griffin should have said, following the outburst over her photo: “It’s art.” No explanation — let alone apology — would have been necessary beyond that. Some people still would’ve been angry, but the great thing about art is that no one actually understands it, and even the proudest philistines secretly have some self-conscious degree of diffidence about their incomprehension. The photo was a cheesy attention-grab, really, but Griffin’s deadpan stare — with the matching blues of her eyes and her blouse, the matching reds of her bob and Trump’s blood-matted locks — made it just arty enough to propel it into that mystical realm where reason and moral judgment are suspended, or at least uttered without real confidence, until the artist admits fault.