Bill Maher (Getty/Vince Bucci)

A defense of Bill Maher (that still criticizes the heck out of him)

We need to criticize problematic views while still listening to people who hold them — when their ideas are smart


Matthew Rozsa
September 10, 2017 2:00PM (UTC)

Let's discuss Bill Maher's recent contract extension at HBO.

Before we do that, though, I'd like to start by offering three premises that should act as the logical foundation for the conversation that follows. When discussing a matter as tricky and sensitive as listening to people with whom you disagree — not just respecting their right to free speech, but accepting that some of what they say will make your blood boil and then hearing them out anyway — it is easy to be misconstrued.

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I am not arguing that offensive speech should go uncriticized. Indeed, I'm not even saying that we should avoid describing someone's words or deeds as racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever, when those words fit.

What I'm saying is that even though Bill Maher has made a lot of offensive comments, he still deserves to be taken seriously by thoughtful people across the political divide. To understand why that is the case, here are the three aforementioned premises:

1. Prejudiced attitudes of all kinds need to be recognized and called out — but as symptoms of a social disease, not as a tool for marginalizing those who are believed to possess them. We should diagnose, not destroy, and deplore the terrible idea rather than the person who holds it. That's why I said that terms identifying specific areas of prejudice should be used whenever they apply. At the same time...

2. We must remember that we all have prejudices. Even the most self-aware among us make assumptions about other people based on what they are rather than who they are, or lack sufficient sympathy for the hardships of others less fortunate than ourselves. As such, we should (a) police ourselves as vigilantly as we do others, (b) call out harmful attitudes wherever we see them and (c) be careful before judging others, lest we be judged ourselves.

3. We shouldn't deprive ourselves access to interesting ideas just because they come from a source we may dislike or even find offensive at times.

This brings me back to Bill Maher.

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The man has said a lot of things that aren't just asinine, but offensive. In this year alone Maher used a racial slur while joking with Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and invited right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on his show. He has a long history of making hateful comments about Muslims, of playing into sexist stereotypes and of promoting pseudo-science based on prejudices against the autistic community (to which I belong).

Yet he is also capable of intelligent political commentary that you won't find done, or at least done with as much biting wit, anywhere else. Take his brilliant use of cross-cultural juxtaposition to illustrate why defenders of Confederate monuments are just plain wrong. Or his conversation with Sen. Bernie Sanders, in which Maher illustrated the absurdity of using "socialism" as an inherently pejorative term. Or his willingness to break America's dumb anti-marijuana laws on national television, again to draw attention to an absurdity (in this case, the fact that those laws even exist).

The point here is not that Maher's good ideas wash away his bad ones. It is rather that people on all sides of the political spectrum — left, right, center, libertarian, you name it — need to be able to strike a balance between criticizing content they deem problematic, for whatever reason, and not dismissing wholesale all the ideas presented by those individuals who may hold problematic opinions.

It's a nuanced approach that involves holding people accountable for their prejudices while remembering that individual human beings are complex. For those accused of holding prejudices, it behooves them to be aware of their own fallibility and humble when the circumstances call for it. For those pointing the finger of accusation, it compels them to be both tenacious in holding people accountable when they are offensive — and, simultaneously, cognizant of the truth in the three premises listed at the top of this article.

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This sentiment does not only apply to Bill Maher. As a man of the left-of-center myself, I try to use pundits with whom I disagree as an intellectual whetstone. I may not agree with Maher or Dave Rubin or Joe Rogan, but that doesn't mean that they and their guests have nothing of value for me to consume. Quite to the contrary, I find the intellectual discourse on their shows to be particularly stimulating precisely because it challenges me — sometimes persuasively so.

Shutting them out because they've expressed opinions I find problematic would be worse than illiberal, it would be downright anti-intellectual. And, of course, it would also be anti-intellectual to give them a pass on their problematic ideas simply because I don't want to be lumped in with those who would shut them down completely.

If there is one lesson we can learn from Maher, it's that it isn't easy being an ideologically omnivorous consumer of political content in modern America.

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Then again, it isn't supposed to be.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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