Kathy Griffin and Tyler Shields collaborated on a truly horrendous piece of work which depicted the comedienne holding the president’s decapitated head. It was disgusting, offensive, and stupid. Griffin quickly felt backlash not only from conservatives, but from liberals – including her fellow comics – and promptly apologized and took down the photograph. CNN slammed the photo and is considering firing her from its annual New Years television coverage. Griffin posted a contrite video, in which she admitted she went too far and appears chastised.
This story is depressing for a lot of reasons – one, I was always a fan and follower of Kathy Griffin’s, and enjoyed her specials, books, CDs, and her excellent reality show. I think that she’s smart and cutting and very witty. Which is why I’m still trying to figure out just what the hell was she thinking.
But Griffin’s act exposed something ugly in our culture that needs to be addressed: the dehumanization of public figures. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both dealt with the kind of ugly hate that Griffin and Shields exhibited with their work – both have been the subject of burning effigies, and in the context of this country’s awful history of lynching Black people, there have been memes, dolls, and mannequins depicting lynchings of President Obama. These examples of unbridled hate were disgusting and not enough people stood up to them.
And the same thing is happening with President Trump. Whether one agrees with his politics or his policies, we still have to agree that the president is a human being. Someone with family and friends. Think about Barron Trump, a child, who now will be able to see Shields’ photograph.
So how did we get to the point where a comic and a photographer both thought this monstrous show of disrespect would be okay?
Well, it’s a simple, thing really. It happened when they called the president King Cheeto, or President Cheeto (or any other variant on Cheeto). It happened when they reduced him to his hair, his tan, his body, his mannerisms. They slowly made him into a cartoon figure, a two-dimensional symbol of political frustration and political fear, and simply forgot – or chose to forget – that behind the memes, cartoons, and caricature, there was a human being.
I’m not defending Trump’s policies. My readers will know that I’m a liberal, who hoped that Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton would’ve won. And when Trump did win, I was scared and worried for our country’s future. I still am. And I know lots of other people are too – including Griffin and Shields.
But that doesn’t mean that we can suddenly take leave of our senses and become hateful monsters.
Some of Griffin’s critics opined that her act has damaged the credibility of liberals. I hate this thinking because again, the credibility of liberals doesn’t matter in this case. What matters is that someone did something unimaginable and awful. And worrying about how liberals will look is callous and unfeeling as well as self centered and selfish.
When Griffin apologized, she seemed genuine and sincere. And yet. She couched her apology as a response to the criticism and ensuing backlash. Her conscience didn’t prompt her to apologize, nor did her sense of fairness or decency. Instead, she apologized because she saw that many of her peers rejected her horrible act.
This is about more than just Kathy Griffin, though. This is about the steady degradation of a public figure, to the point where people forget that he’s a human being.
This fracas is also an opportunity for some introspection among many liberals, who, in their zeal and frustration, have become the bizarro version of the Westboro Baptist Church. How much did that echo chamber in which Griffin obviously existed, contributed to her myopia? If she, along with her fans, friends, and followers all provide a steady drumbeat of hate, does that naturally result in the kind of garbage that she and Shields created?
When there are instances of hate crimes, we ask that everyone look within themselves. And that’s important. We have to examine just what in our society creates Neo-Nazis, alt-right bigots, rapists, and queer bashers. It’s important because these people don’t just spring from thin air – they are a product, created.
But in the case of Griffin – and those who are still insisting that she’s done nothing wrong – we have to do the same kind of self-examination. Because she’s a product, too. She’s the result of months of constant slams, slights, and hatred that fooled Griffin into thinking that her space would be hospitable to a photograph like hers.
I’ve been thinking about the president a lot this past day or so after I saw the photograph. It made me sad and disturbed me. It was a spotlight on a kind of sheltered privilege that Griffin seemingly enjoys that protects her from understanding what it means to have a family member killed in such a way. Right now, there are organizations throughout the world who really do what Shields and Griffin only pretended to do. I thought about the president’s family and friends, all of whom love him, and had to see that awful image.
The photograph is an extreme example of just how base and awful political discourse has become in this country. Griffin and Shields wouldn’t have felt a picture like that would be okay, if the two didn’t see evidence of something similar. As I wrote earlier, we’ve seen Hillary Clinton effigies burned at rallies, and Barack Obama mannequins strung up on trees. We’ve also seen memes of Donald Trump pinatas, waiting to be pummeled. None of this funny. None of this is productive. And none of this is fair. But just because Clinton and Obama suffered these indignities doesn’t mean Trump deserves to, as well. No one does.