Roseanne’s tweets about Valerie Jarret, Chelsea Clinton and George Soros proved to be the stones that cracked the camel’s skull when ABC cancelled her show. Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” who should be convincing her father to change his immigration policies. While Bee did lose some advertising sponsors, she has not been fired (as of this writing). While she did apologize, some have come to her defense, including her former employer John Stewart. As would be imagined, some people see these situations as analogous and believe that if Roseanne should be fired, then so should Bee.
As with anything involving political identities, people will tend to see the matter through the lenses of their affiliations rather than applying a consistent standard of when a person can be justly fired. While such bias is unavoidable, I will endeavor to assess the matter as objectively as possible in the context of ethics. In terms of the legality of the matter, the answer is easy: ABC had the legal right to fire Roseanne and TBS has the legal right to keep employing Bee. They also have the right, within the limits of whatever legal contract exists, to fire her.
Assessing the fairness of the difference in treatment is, in ethical terms, a matter of considering whether the standards have been applied consistently in both cases. To be more specific, the fairness or unfairness comes down to considering whether there are relevant differences between the two situations that morally justifies the difference in treatment.
To use an analogy, consider my assessment of student papers. Ethical grading, like ethical firing, requires that I apply the same standards to all my students. If two students receive different grades, then there must be a relevant difference between their papers. If not, the difference in the grades would be unjust. For example, if one student who loathes running plagiarizes and gets an F, yet a student who is on the cross-county team plagiarizes and gets a C because they share my view of running, then I would have acted unjustly. However, if the loather of running plagiarizes the entire paper and the cross-country runner only fails to properly cite one small quote from Socrates, then the difference in grades would be warranted—while both did something wrong, the penalty varies based on the wrongness. The same applies to the Bee and Roseanne cases: while they both did something wrong, the question is whether their misdeeds are similar enough to warrant similar consequences. As such, I will compare the situations to see if they are, in fact, sufficiently alike to warrant the firing of Bee. One way to look at the situations is to draw an analogy to a physical attack and use some analogous standards in the discussion. I will use this approach.
When assessing the ethics of an attack, physical or otherwise, it is worth considering the relative strength of the opponents. While unprovoked attacks are obviously bad, there are moral distinctions. If for example, a weak person feebly swings at a strong person, that is less bad than a very strong person hammering a weak person. In the case of insults via Twitter or TV, one way to consider strength is in terms of social status: people with greater status can generally “hit” harder than people with less status.
In the case of Roseanne, she was going after people who are well known and have significant status. In the case of Bee, she went after Ivanka Trump, someone who also has considerable status—presumably more than the comedian Bee. Thus, the two were, roughly speaking, punching at their social weight—and perhaps punching up. So, the two cases are comparable here. Of course, social status is not the whole story—there are also advantages and disadvantages that arise from factors such as race, sex and gender.
In the case of Roseanne’s main Tweet and Bee’s insult, they were both attacking other women. As such, they are punching sideways into their own sex. Roseanne, however, was going after a black woman while Bee was going after a white woman. Since whites enjoy a social advantage, Roseanne was punching down, while Bee was punching sideways into her own “race.” As such, this is a potential relevant difference.
Going along with the analogy of the physical fight, there is also the question of the weapons used. Socking someone with a fist is generally less bad than walloping someone with a baseball bat. Likewise, there are degrees of severity in the words used and the nature of the attack.
Purely in terms of the words, Bee seems to be worse here: she used “cunt” whereas Roseanne used rated G words like “Muslim” and “ape.” However, there is also the matter of the severity of the attack itself—after all, it is not just a matter of individual words being awful, but also what lies behind the words.
The Muslim part of Roseanne’s attack cashed in on xenophobia about Muslims and dragged the old idea that Obama and his fellows are Muslims. The “Planet of the Apes” component brought up the old racist tool of comparing black people (and others) to apes or monkeys. These factors entail that the Tweet was more than just a personal attack—the use of the ape reference broadens her attack. To use the fight analogy, Roseanne is swinging at her target, but also hitting bystanders as well.
It could be claimed that Bee’s use of “cunt” drags in women—since that term is most often (but not always) applied to women. As such, she is also hitting bystanders as well, making her as bad as Roseanne. This, of course, leads to the debate about whether the term is sexist or whether it is only sexist when used by men or in a certain way. As such, the question is this: is Bee a sexist/misogynist in the way that Roseanne is supposed to be a racist? One way to consider the matter is to look at the history of Roseanne and Bee.
Roseanne has a well-established Twitter history of racism. As such, the claim that she is a racist has considerable merit. In contrast, while Bee does attack women, she does not attack them because they are women. In the case of Ivanka, Bee is not acting in accord with a consistent history of sexism/misogyny. Rather, she used what is often seen as a sexist term to attack Ivanka because of what Ivanka has done (or, rather, not done). As such, while her word choice can be faulted, she is not (to use the fight analogy) punching bystanders—her punch was aimed directly at Ivanka. As such, she is less bad than Roseanne in two ways: first, she is not acting in the context of a history of racism or sexism. Second, her insult only involves the specific target without the spillover attack on people of the same “race” or sex.
Crudely put, Bee used what most regard as a vile term to insult one person while Roseanne engaged in the tropes of xenophobia and racism in her attack, thus insulting and attacking everyone in those targeted groups. So, what Bee did was not as bad as what Roseanne did and this can be the relevant difference that justifies the difference in treatment.
It could be argued that while there is a difference, Bee should still be fired for using a bad word to describe Ivanka. This raises a different issue from whether Bee is as bad as Roseanne and involves the ethics of justified firing.
One practical approach is to look at the matter in terms of the potential harm the employee does to the employer by their actions. This fits in with the usual approach to justified firings for cause—the employee does enough harm to warrant firing. In the case of media companies, the concern is with the impact on advertising and viewership. Roseanne’s Tweet seems to have clearly done more damage in these areas than Bee’s word. As such, Bee’s show would seem to roughly as economically viable for TBS as it was before, although the loss of advertisers presumably did impact the bottom line. As such, this would also be a relevant difference between Bee and Roseanne.
There remains the moral concern about when or even if an employer should fire an employee simply for saying something bad regardless of the impact on the bottom line. One easy and obvious approach is to contend that the badness of what an employee says is only relevant to their employment when what they say has an impact on the employer. That is, simply saying bad things or being bad does not warrant firing. What matters is the impact of the actions on the employer. Employers, it could be argued, are not the guardians of morality—they are in business to do business. As such, even if Bee was wrong to use that word, the badness of her action does not itself warrant firing her. Nor did the wrongness of Roseanne’s actions.