The anger over Kathy Griffin's faux beheading of Donald Trump has continued in many conservative spaces, fueling a narrative that liberals are traitorous, irreverent, violent, and sympathetic or no different from terrorists & ISIS. The announcement of her firing from CNN has entered the conservative narrative as validation that they were correct in their responses and their perceptions of liberals. Naturally there have been many responses on the left:
- She shouldn’t apologize and/or it’s free speech
- The left shouldn’t care if conservatives are upset
- What about Nugent, racist violent imagery, & Obama?
- It was classless and stupid
It’s easy to understand these reactions. They fit liberal perceptions about conservatives as hypocrites, closed minded, violent, racist, and having blind faith patriotism or Britney Spears/President Bush logic. It’s also true that all of these responses have merit in their own right. Moreover, liberals are human beings and the Obama images applauded by some conservatives were in some ways worse than Griffin’s, coming from a place of racism and genuine aggression instead of satire. In fact, itwould be perfectly understandable if part of why liberals have been shutting down more speech recently is because of burnout from perceived constant conservative aggression and an overwhelming feeling that liberals can never win discussions for a variety of reasons.
In general, the liberal reaction has fallen into one of three categories:
A.) Kathy Griffin specifically (whether she was justified and what should happen to her professionally, if anything)
B.) Identifying relevant battles
- Liberals should fight hypocrisy on the right
- It’s about free speech
- This is about art and good taste
- This is about Griffin’s message and critiquing Trump
C.) How liberals should fight those battles
- Pull up graphic images from the Obama era & compare them
- Agree to that they were horrified by the imagery
- Support Griffin and not care what conservatives think
- Respond to conservatives with justifications related to Trump’s actions
To confront this, liberals must answer a much more basic question.
Whatare liberals actually trying to achieve?
Many liberals might answer something along the lines of a fairer, more just society. Interestingly, it would not be difficult to believe if many conservatives and most moderates on both sides said something along similar lines. More than likely, what would separate liberals from others is that the above society would be firmly couched in and driven by a rights-based perspective.
How do liberals get there?
“I don't give a damn about appeasing conservatives or finding "common ground.” I don't need or want their validation.“
The logical answer would be interaction and discourse. Free speech and free press are supposed to contribute to these. If the point of discourse is to challenge differing opinions and promote understanding across the divide, then this means:
- Some perspectives and comments liberals encounter will be uncomfortable and in fact outright offensive.
- Liberals have to decide how to respond in such situations.
So what are liberals to do?
The Washington Post decided to run with the headline: “The right is mad over Kathy Griffin’s gruesome Trump video. The left asks: Remember Ted Nugent?”
The article stops after it points out the contradiction in outcomes between the celebrities, and it does so because it feels like there’s nowhere to go. The liberal perception that there’s no room for liberal voices in conservative spaces without extreme hostility continues to grow.
Griffin hits a sore spot for the left, because while she apologized and was fired anyway, Nugent was invited to the White House. It’s frustrating for liberals when it feels like the rules aren’t fair and the right is not held to account in the same manner as the left.
Comparing Griffin to the racist imagery of the Obama era isn’t untrue. For both, the opposite camp’s imagery was upsetting, offensive, and transgressed on given held values. “What about” questions comparing Griffin to ISIS by conservatives flooded social media, and it’s understandable why liberals want to respond in kind. However, such comparisons don’t move liberals or conservatives towards anything meaningful. Neither does asking “What about Ted Nugent” or “What about Trump.”
Asking these questions as whataboutisms drives the discussion towards a specific direction and often shuts it down by turning others off or eliciting eyerolls. It’s not that these questions are untrue or irrelevant, it’s how they are asked, and how questions are asked is driven by what the questioner is trying to achieve. If liberals, some conservatives, and most moderates want to achieve a fairer, more just society through dialogue, then more meaningful dialogue is required. As traditional drivers of dialogue, liberals should help exemplify and guide dialogue that promotes liberal aims and goals.
If liberals want conservatives to recognize or acknowledge their seeming hypocrisy in reaction between racist images of Obama and Griffin’s violent images, then how the questions are asked is crucial, and the dialogue must provide conservatives a space to explain the difference in reaction if there is one.
If liberals want Trump supporters to understand why Griffin may have felt compelled to make such imagery, then the dialogue cannot just be a laundry list of everything Trump has done wrong, no matter how tempting it might be to do so.
Above all, if liberals want Trump supporters to reconsider their support, then the dialogue must have a space that allows conservatives to explain why they support Trump in the first place. Most crucially, the dialogue cannot devolve into personal attacks and name-calling because the last time anyone checked, calling someone a racist and stupid never changed anyone’s mind. Liberals will be able to more effectively challenge Trump’s base of support when they understand what his base sees in him. The median Trump supporter’s income during the primaries was around $72,000, so not always uneducated, poor, white males from the Rust Belt.
Make no mistake, this does not meancompromising with conservatives on issues relating to civil rights and civil liberties, but it does mean starting and having conversations in places that both liberals and conservatives can relate to so that more meaningful dialogue can develop. “What about” questions can sometimes serve as starting points, but should never be the end of the conversation.
Kathy Griffin may not have intended for such consequences, but that does not mean there aren't any positive ones to be found.