Sticks and Stones and Pens and Swords: An Open Letter to Bill Maher

Dear Bill Maher,

You’ve been behaving yourself lately, as far as I know. You’re a bit of a professional troll, so behaving yourself is a relative term, but you’ve stayed within the bounds of your own bell curve. I’ve been waiting for such an opportunity to talk to you.

Previously, after various PR disasters, I’ve drafted open letters and standard rants to talk to you, most recently when you called yourself a “house n*gger.” Each time, though, I’ve gotten sidetracked to another topic. I have found myself not talking about the particular recent crisis, but a recurring problem that has, for years, blocked me from properly enjoying your show. A problem that underwrites each of your individual controversies, as well as asserting itself throughout your show. A misconception you cling to almost obsessively, and that I have heard many of your fans repeat.

You love the idea that your words can’t hurt anyone.

For example, when you gave an interview to Milo Yiannopoulos, you and he jovially agreed that humor is all just about bonding and jokes are harmless. You even said, “when people laugh, they know it’s true.” You said that, to a man who regularly makes jokes at the expense of transgender people. Who encourages his fans to hurt trans people and even outs them to this hostile audience. So do you agree with the content of his jokes? Do you think his audience’s laughter means we deserve everything he believes about us?

Probably not. Probably you would engage in some special pleading to get out of those accusations. Pardon me, I was getting ahead of myself.

See, most of the time, when you say your words are inherently harmless, you are defending yourself against critics. Someone is saying that something you said is damaging or unfunny or otherwise unacceptable, and you are defanging that assessment. By saying that words cannot possibly cause real harm to anyone, you are making your critics out to be overanxious handwringers. But, by your own logic, why would you even bother to respond?

In other words, if your words cannot cause real harm to your critics, or whoever your critics say you are harming, then their words in turn cannot harm you. If words never hurt anybody, you shouldn’t care when people criticize you.

Well, maybe you are unconcerned. Maybe you just mock your critics because you are a wordsmith and professional troll, so you respond to anything so long as you have a sufficiently witty barb. But I am inclined to think you are concerned, that you think your critics have real power that you must defend yourself from, and I don’t think that defensiveness is unwarranted.

There’s always chance that, for example, when person A points out that your joke or your interview was damaging to person B, some members of your audience will think, “hey, I like person B! Bill Maher sure makes a lot of unnecessary jokes at person B’s expense. I now feel bad for laughing at those jokes.” If this goes on for long enough, people will stop watching your show, to avoid that “I shouldn’t have laughed” feeling. Hell, it’s why I no longer watch, and I’ve heard some people say they are finding it harder and harder to stay a fan.

If this trend continues, you will lose your audience, your ratings will plummet, and HBO will have to decide whether or not you’re worth the loss. There’s a good chance they will decide it is not. And as your style of humor is naturally very contentious, you might find yourself struggling to find another venue that will support you.

That would be inconvenient for you, as you don’t seem to have many skills beyond “sarcastic wordsmith.”

So you fight back, with this weird little magician’s trick. You, afraid of the harm caused by your critics’ words, will claim words are harmless, and that therefore you should never be criticized for your words. With enough wordplay, you disguise your true intent, your audience laughs, and personal financial crisis is averted.

It is fundamentally absurd for any human to claim words do not have power. We survive by the power of language. We use language to gather information, to pass it on to our descendants, to form social bonds that protect us. Words are an evolved life skill, selected for just as fangs and claws and tails are. They don’t deserve to be dismissed as frivolous baubles.

That is not to say that freedom of expression is not important. But we should respect the right to free speech, not like someone who guards a lamb, but like someone who releases a hawk. Words are the tools we use to construct governments and societies, and the ones we use to fix it when it is broken. Therefore we give free speech sovereignty over the law. This does not mean we give people license to say anything without consequence. When we use our words to criticize another person’s words, we are using them exactly they way they should be used. Words are like diamonds. We use them to cut each other, because no other tool is up to the job.

As someone who criticizes your critics, you are not a defender of free speech. You are simply a user of it, and your critics no less so. You are both sparring on equal terms under the law. And, for the record, if your critics do someday put you out of business, it will not be because they are against the game of social discourse. They’ll just have won it. A boxer who claims his victorious opponent is trying to ban tournaments isn’t making an insightful point, but being ridiculous and a sore loser.

You make your living off of the words you say. Respect the power of your tools.

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