Roseanne’s Tweet and How Social Media Has Redefined the Concept of Bully Pulpit

It’s not surprising that in a way, the person least offended by Roseanne Barr’s demeaning tweet about Valerie Jarrett this week was Valerie Jarrett.

That’s because, I’m guessing, Valerie Jarrett understands two critical principles.

One, a comment like Barr’s says everything about the person who made it and nothing about the person at whom it was directed.

Two, bullies are cowards.

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Roseanne Barr.

The “Planet of the Apes” tweet that cost Roseanne her self-titled, monster hit ABC sitcom fell into a category far too common in the social media world.

It wasn’t part of a discussion or a conversation. It was the bully trying to insult a kid walking on the other side of the playground. It didn’t have to be clever, or true, or anything else, because the bully isn’t talking to the kid. The bully remains a safe distance away, talking to her posse, milking an easy high-five.

It’s an exercise in self-satisfaction. If that kid hadn’t come into her line of sight, she’d say something demeaning or insulting about another kid, or a teacher, or whomever.

That’s how children make themselves feel better than someone else, and unfortunately, the dynamic can extend into adulthood.

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Valerie Jarrett.

In this case, Valerie Jarrett seemed saddened mostly because Roseanne’s tweet reminded us that some white folks still quietly think black folks aren’t as good as they are, and therefore can be casually demeaned.

When the #metoo movement caught fire, one of the most disturbing premises — because it’s way too true — was that “every woman has a story.”

I suspect it’s not a big stretch to say that every black person also has a story.

We’ve made progress in the last 60 years. There’s still a lot of road ahead, and the fact that a person as intelligent as Roseanne Barr can casually link a black woman to an ape suggests either a blind spot the size of Oahu or something deeply ingrained.

That Roseanne first tried to pass it off as a misfiring joke wasn’t a big surprise. It’s a time-tested rationale, that your critics can’t even take a joke.

Only problem is, for something to be a joke, it should be funny.

Racial jokes are doable. On television, All in the Family and The Jeffersons made them. Black-ish makes them. Fresh Off The Boat makes them. In a mild irony, Roseanne has made them.

The Jarrett tweet wasn’t a joke. It was a sneering wisecrack playing to the posse.

One way to distinguish a joke from a sneer is imagining whether the teller would sit down with the subject, one on one, and make a similar remark.

I’m pretty sure Roseanne Barr would not sit across from Valerie Jarrett at Denny’s and tell her she was descended from the apes.

Which takes us back to principles two and one, which are that bullies are cowards and this tweet said nothing about Valerie Jarrett, only Roseanne Barr.

Roseanne may have come closer to the truth when her second attempt to explain the tweet, a day later, blamed it on the sleep drug Ambien.

Is it possible she was sitting around at 2 or 3 in the morning, waiting for the Ambien to kick in, picking up her smartphone and blasting out some random unfiltered thoughts that were running through her head?


The problem there, as Bob Dylan once wrote, is that “If my thought dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head / in a guillotine.”

“Unfiltered” makes good fodder, for traditional media and for social media. It doesn’t always make for a great America.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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