After being outed for donning blackface during their college years and facing strong demands that they resign, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring stayed the course. Minds, black and white, changed gradually. Saner heads prevailed. The governor and the attorney general kept their jobs.
Megyn Kelly, one of the biggest talents in TV news broadcasting, was not so fortunate. She was fired in October, within days of having declared on “Megyn Kelly Today” that blackface was “OK when I was a kid as long as you were dressing like a character” — meaning for Halloween or a costume party. She was swiftly and roundly condemned, despite an earnest apology for having inadvertently caused pain.
Ms. Kelly’s right to speak freely, guaranteed by the First Amendment, had few defenders. The virulent, incendiary responses to her statement about those of her generation — she is 48 — who had no intention of offending anyone by darkening their skin, sucked up all the air. NBC News extracted an unduly harsh and destructive penalty, retroactively judging an act from an earlier era by our current, more diversity-sensitive standards. (The reported $30 million payout — the remainder of her $69 million contract — probably mitigated Ms. Kelly’s pain but did nothing to undo the injustice.)
As part of a new American sensibility, some who share a common race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or particular world view, feeling underrepresented and underserved, have allowed their outrage to become tyrannical. The “gotcha” trap that sprung on Ms. Kelly (and others) substitutes payback for authentic engagement, even as significant efforts are ongoing to redress historical wrongs perpetrated against minorities and women. Following Martin Luther King’s vision of overcoming, we should be striving to become a country where the inherent struggle of being human and mortal is no more difficult for those now marginalized than for those who are not marginalized.
For the white majority, a defensive “flight into goodness,” which comes primarily from the social and political left and professes the best of intentions, is unwittingly chipping away at truth and allowing injustice to be done in the name of justice.
What has happened to a country that permits a stray remark — or a painfully true one — no matter how innocently intended, to destroy a career or a life? What has become of our constitutional right to free speech and to the tradition of fair play?
All Americans should be asking these questions, as reason is edged out by histrionics, fairness by revenge. We need to think hard about the implications of what it means for some of our citizens to demand that a word or an image that has acquired a historical traumatic meaning for them can no longer be used by anyone, in any context.
Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible,” opened in New York on Jan. 22, 1953, as Sen. Joseph McCarthy was falsely accusing hundreds of Americans of being communists or communist sympathizers. In his introduction to the Penguin edition of the play, Christopher Bigsby noted that Miller “reminds us how fragile is our grasp on those shared values that are the foundation of any society … groundless accusations are still granted credence, hysteria still claims its victims, persecution still masquerades as virtue and prejudice as piety.”
As history arcs toward racial and gender equality — if unevenly and too slowly — we should try to understand why so many Americans are being caught now in a net that is being cast too wide, and why efforts to bring justice to some have come at the expense of injustice to others.
René J. Muller (email@example.com) is the author, most recently, of “The Four Domains of Mental Illness: An Alternative to the DSM-5” (Routledge 2018).