Bill Maher thinks there is too much apologizing in America.
He made this head-scratching assertion on a recent episode of his eponymous HBO show in response to the online backlash against director Lin-Manuel Miranda for casting light-skinned Latinos in leading roles for the screen adaptation of the Broadway musical “In the Heights.” The movie is based on the real-life New York City neighborhood Washington Heights, which boasts a community largely made up of Afro-Latinos.
Miranda seemed to take the complaints to heart and offered a fulsome apology, noting, “I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen.” He expressed appreciation for the feedback and promised to do better in the future.
Whether his apology will be accepted remains to be seen. Many of the people telling him he didn’t need to apologize are not the people who had their existence whitewashed out of a story and who have long suffered from lack of representation in media and entertainment.
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But Maher wasn’t the only one offended by Miranda’s contrition. Social media was abuzz with people echoing the HBO host’s complaints.
“Please stop the apologizing. You’re the guy who made the Founding Fathers Black and Hispanic! I don’t think you have to apologize to Twitter. … This is why people hate Democrats,” Maher told his panelists. “People didn’t used to grovel and apologize like this.”
He asserted that, “At some point people are going to have to stand up to these bullies” because their attitude is “I can make you crawl like a dog and I enjoy it.”
These comments garnered vigorous clapping from Maher’s audience, which isn’t exactly known for its conservatism.
It’s true that social media is home to many chronic complainers with a limitless capacity for outrage over the most minor of infractions. There is often a lack of perspective and proportion. It also happens that a large portion of these people are conservatives or libertarians with huge followings (which is why the “this is why people hate Democrats” comment seems somewhat specious). These right-leaning personalities obsessively tweet about the “woke mob” and “snowflakes” and tell them to stop “whining,” with no self-awareness that their Twitter timeline is a cornucopia of complaints, whether about critical race theory, “cancel culture” or other affronts. For some reason, their constant state of aggrievement does not count as “whining.”
What’s the difference between Maher’s rant about Miranda’s apology and people on Twitter complaining about colorism in Miranda’s movie? The only thing that separates them is that Maher has a huge platform on HBO and that people on Twitter don’t. Where else can someone without such a platform make complaints about systemic issues like colorism – the serious and painful issue of discrimination based on skin tone – than on social media? Yet, only one kind of criticism is being called “bullying” or “bitching.”
What many people call bullying (or in other cases, “cancellation”) is often just criticism or calls for accountability. It’s almost always about issues that have been long-standing and raised ad nauseum only to fall on deaf ears. Yes, sometimes the Twitter swarms are overreactions. They can be cruel and abusive, and we should all take care to not reward this kind of activity.
Though it should be stipulated that, contrary to conventional wisdom, conservatives are just as likely to start a Twitter storm as a person from the left side of the aisle. At any rate, we should be able to distinguish between a brutal overreaction to a minor offense and an outcry meant to raise awareness about a serious issue. After all, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo could not have had the success they did without Twitter.
The sheer number of people on Twitter can make a backlash there feel overwhelming, and even frightening. I know because I’ve experienced them, though inevitably for me, such attacks have come from the right.
But people expressing disappointment or criticism is not the same thing as bullying. Yes, there will always be people you can’t satisfy, but that is not a reason to ignore complaints or to refuse to apologize when you recognize you have caused harm or hurt people.
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Sometimes, people will attack you when you didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s fine to ignore them. But other times, they will have valid complaints. Even though many in the media can pretend otherwise, we actually possess the ability to discern the difference. Having a position in the public eye where you get to express your ideas is a privilege, and with that privilege comes a responsibility to try to have empathy for people who don’t have that platform and for whom the topic of discussion might not be merely philosophical. It could have real-life consequences for them.
We have to let go of the idea that apologizing is weak. Holding yourself accountable, as Miranda did, is not “groveling.” It’s a sign of character, strength and humility. America has many problems, but apologizing too much ain’t one of them.
Kirsten Powers, a CNN news analyst, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow her on Twitter: @KirstenPowers
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In the Heights: Bill Maher is wrong about Lin-Manuel Miranda's apology