Words are hard. Hard to understand, hard to use properly, and hard to control once they’re out there. Those of you who know me personally have heard me say this, and I certainly believe it, but even I often don't realize just how powerful and dangerous words can be. Words are powerful because they represent reality, and they are dangerous because – and you might want to write this down – words are not reality. They have no meaning apart from the ideas they convey, and they have no importance apart from the actions they inspire. Ignorance of this fact is, I think, the biggest problem behind the whole Bill Maher thing. I was bothered at first that people wouldn’t stop talking about it, because I don’t think it’s important, but the controversy has given me the opportunity to clear up something that I think is important.
I had the opportunity last Tuesday to hear from a couple of students who opposed Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at Cal's commencement, and although they were both Muslims themselves, they ostensibly didn’t object to Maher because of his criticism of Islam. The reason they gave was that Bill Maher has a tendency to say offensive things, and someone who says such things shouldn’t be given such a prestigious platform to speak. It was a relief to hear that they don’t have a problem with criticism of Islam (yes, maybe it’s just a giant coincidence that there also happen to be plenty of loud people in the West who try to silence any criticism of Islam, but I’ll take them at their word), but their criticism of Bill Maher qua Bill Maher demonstrates an irritating habit of focusing on language over action. Every critic I’ve seen has been throwing out offensive quotes from him, as if they represent something other than that his job is to produce offensive quotes, and this infuriates me because it’s contrary to the most important principle for achieving success and happiness: What matters is what people do, and everything else is a lie. Bill Maher is going to say inflammatory things in any case – an occupational hazard of being a comedian – but if one wants to object to his views, one needs to look past his words, look at his impact on the real world, in order to determine which views he actually holds.
Since this totally isn’t about criticism of Islam, let’s take as an example a Tweet that Bill Maher made recently, saying “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists for so long before you have to slap her”. A member of the Facebook group showed us this Tweet last week, referencing it as an example of how Bill Maher is a sexist, and then mentioning it again, just in case we hadn’t noticed how good he was at calling things sexist. He then went on to contemplate self harm/destruction of property due to arguments over whether the Tweet was in fact sexist. Now, I agreed with him that the Tweet was objectionable, but I also saw that the moment he started arguing over whether the term “sexist” applied to it, he gave the conversation away to the forces of nonsense. Protip: if you think something is bad, your time is wasted arguing over which label best applies to it, because this takes the focus entirely off why the thing itself is bad. Let people define “sexist” any way they want, but if it's really something wrong, you still win by pointing to all the negative consequences that this Tweet produces in objective reality. So, what effect does this Tweet have on the real world that makes it so objectionable?
“It perpetuates the stereotype of women as irrational and insane.” In whose mind? Yours? Maybe if you’re an idiot. The Tweet doesn’t say anything about women; it mentions “a woman” who isn’t even a real woman (What’s her name? How tall is she? Does she prefer Thai food or Chinese?) for the sake of a simile, to make a point about the extent to which violence can be justified in self-defense. That’s an interesting conversation, and one worth having, but apparently the word “woman” means it’s a gender issue instead (I just thank God that the word “man” wasn’t in there to perpetuate the stereotype of men as violent and lacking in empathy). I find it unlikely that this Tweet has actually affected gender relations. I’m sorry you have to find out like this, dear reader, but if reading that Tweet put the belief into your head that women in general are crazy, then you were already a misogynist. And if the Tweet just reinforced a belief you held previously, well, you shouldn’t need me to tell you.
But you didn’t think about it like that, did you? Be honest here, did you wonder what sort of effect reading that Tweet would have on your own beliefs? If you did, you’re a better person than you think you are. But the rest of you had to be thinking of someone, right? Stereotypes are beliefs held in individual minds, after all. What kind of individual did you imagine, in whom this stereotype would be perpetuated, who would treat women differently based on a glib remark from the host of HBO’s Real Time? It would be a strange individual indeed who held racist or sexist beliefs and looked to Bill Maher’s Twitter account for validation. So if this isn’t the real-world impact of the Tweet, what is?
If you said, “It trivializes issues of domestic violence”, pat yourself on the back because you're looking in the right place. If you want to know what my problem is with stuff like this, well, you’re looking at it. This blog post that you’re reading right now, this whole conversation we're having, is part of the problem because it keeps the focus on Bill Maher’s words instead of, you know, actual domestic violence. But that’s the System we’re all in: we are forced to focus on words over actions to assess a person’s value because the System wants us to forget that only actions matter. It’s easier for us to use words to identify brands – and make no mistake, everything is a brand these days – so those who want to impose brands on the public do so with words. The Tweet, like everything, is a branding move, and it has two results. The first result is that it reinforces the branding of Bill Maher as unafraid to say abrasive things, as secure enough in his convictions that he doesn’t care whose feelings he hurts. And so what? I say Bill Maher can do whatever he wants with his brand, but the problem is that it’s not just his brand that’s affected. The second result, which is less an effect than a cause of the first, is where the damage is done. You’re not supposed to see it, but here's a hint: does persistent indignation over a comedian's 140-character comment on foreign affairs make one look more or less crazy than before? The really serious problem that I've never seen anyone point out is that controversies like the one around this Tweet dilute the brand of Feminism. Feminism is not an objectively real thing; like Bill Maher – or Islam, for what it’s worth – it is a brand; it’s a set of ideas and actions that we all agree to put under this label. As such, Feminism is defined by what is done in its name. If Feminists attack people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, then – in the public perception, at least – Feminism comes to entail attacking people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, and that’s all anyone needs to know to safely dismiss the brand altogether (e.g. "Feminists? You mean those people who say you can never call a woman crazy, even if she's trying to kill u?"). If you want to brand yourself as the kind of person who throws a fit whenever a public figure says something unflattering, don’t be surprised when people stop listening to you, even about real issues. But that’s exactly what the System wants. Bill Maher and his ilk are how the System feeds your need to be outraged. He gives you a reason to feel righteously indignant, and in turn, you safely direct your anger at his words in order to ensure that nothing important ever actually changes.
Why do you think Bill Maher made that tweet in the first place? Who was his intended audience? Did he want to tarnish the public perception of women? Encourage domestic violence? Now, I’m no mind-reader, but no. He wanted this. He wanted to be talked about, and he used an inflammatory analogy precisely because he knew we were going to get mad about it. If I bought into conspiracy theories, I’d be convinced that this whole thing was a plant by the Patriarchy to discredit Feminism and take the focus off of real issues. If Bill Maher is actually hitting women, or if people are reading his tweet and deciding that that makes it okay to hit women, that needs to stop. This should go without saying, but violence, including violence against women, is bad. Don't do it. But to call Bill Maher a misogynist obfuscates the fact that there are actual misogynists. Somewhere in the real world, at this very moment, a man is slapping a woman; do you think it's because Bill Maher told him to? The proper response to this tweet, if you disapprove of it, is to treat it like an outburst from an annoying child: ignore it, because it doesn't actually hurt anyone, and it will stop on its own once he realizes it won't get him any attention. As a public figure, he has no more power than what we, the public, give him. Remember, words are nothing unless they inspire actions (which is why, contrastively, the proper response when a partner who's beaten you apologizes and says, "I love you," is to say, "That's demonstrably not true," and then duck). I even agree that the fact that we were so receptive to a comparison between women and Hamas – i.e. no matter what you think of the Tweet, its specific mention of "a woman" isn’t a total non-sequitur – but come on, guys. You know we live in a rape culture, right? Tweets do not hurt women. Fists hurt women. Unwanted pregnancies hurt women. Poor educational opportunities hurt women. Will attacking Bill Maher fix these things, or anything? Will it even make him less likely to say sexist things in the future? Or is he a diversion? I totally get that it’s easier to call out hypocrisy on Twitter than actually do something about anything, but at least recognize that it's the path of least resistance, and don't present it to us all like you're doing the Lord's work. That's not how progress happens.
The saying goes, “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” Words are not reality; words are cheap. Language is a tool, a logical system that we use for describing and interpreting reality. It is the wall between our minds and the world we inhabit. This fact seems obvious when it’s right in front of you, but it is terrifyingly easy to forget. Our relationship with language is the most unique aspect of the human condition, and to forget it is to abandon one’s commitment to rationality. So, what does Bill Maher really believe? Unless you can read the man’s mind, the answer to this question is found in his actions, in how he treats the people in his life. The question worth asking is, what does he do? Remember, everything else is a lie.