For about two minutes, I thought the leaked footage of MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell shouting at his staff was hilarious.
There is, after all, something faintly amusing about the idea of a pompous overpaid liberal television host throwing a tantrum and being rude to subordinates when faced with the most minor inconveniences. Humor works best when it punches up rather down, which is why P.G. Wodehouse, the funniest writer in our language, made all of his jokes at the expense of aristocrats, fascist underwear merchants, and bishops. Receiving a salary so enormous that you employ a "team of representatives" just to negotiate it for talking about public affairs on a popular cable television channel is really hard work, bud. We totally feel your pain.
But as I watched the video, I found myself growing impatient. O'Donnell shouted. He used various four-letter words. He scowled at the woman who brought him a piece of paper, which he later crumpled into a ball. But he did not employ any racial epithets or commit any acts of violence. His outbursts were crude, but over the course of eight minutes they were interrupted by moments of not terribly interesting composure in which he simply read the news.
In other words, I was disappointed that O'Donnell's would-be private fit of rage had proven insufficiently embarrassing. It did not rise to the level of schadenfreude that I thought had been promised to me when I clicked the link. A few hours later I saw that he had offered an apology that struck me as sincere. It was at any rate free of corporate or pseudo-therapeutic jargon and cheaply self-exculpatory language. "A better anchorman and a better person would've had a better reaction to technical difficulties," he wrote. "I'm sorry."
Nearly two days have passed since the leaked footage appeared online, and by next week I doubt that most of the people who watched it will remember. But I think it's worth asking ourselves why the video was published in the first place, why there was an audience for it, and why so many of us were eager to waste eight minutes of our lives in the hope of getting that little jolt of moral superiority that comes with watching someone else do a thing that each of us has done a million times.
Are any of us actually under the impression that we have never been rude, that we have all lived lives in which we have done nothing of which we should be ashamed? Why is it equally easy to enjoy the spectacle of watching others do or say something stupid and to justify or simply to avoid thinking about all the times when we have failed to be kind? There is something especially absurd about taking to Twitter, a website that seems to exist solely for the purpose of being vicious to strangers, in order to congratulate ourselves on not being whoever is the latest victim of our group exercise in reverse-goodwill.
Liberalism is not very comfortable with forgiveness. In America today everything is permitted except those things which are absolutely unforgivable. The amount of scorn and cruelty we feel comfortable heaping upon those who depart even casually from whatever the latest defined norm might be is staggering. A few years ago a man working for the European Space Agency wore a stupid Hawaiian shirt featuring old-fashioned pin-up-style images of women on it to an event at which he successfully landed a spacecraft on a comet. His fashion sense was denounced immediately as bad and even sexist by people who have no problem with Game of Thrones or hardcore pornography or rap lyrics. Today he is far more famous for the shirt than for his scientific achievement. Nor did his almost immediate apology win him much good will. His "personal apology doesn't make up for the fact that no one at ESA saw fit to stop him from representing the space community with clothing that demeans 50 percent of the world's population," The Verge editorialized.
Something similar happened recently when Michelle Goldberg wrote a book review for The New York Times that contained a number of errors. The author of the book was understandably upset that her work had been mischaracterized, but the level of interest generated by the review was totally out of keeping with the gravity of Goldberg's mistake, which became the occasion for endless glib speculation about goings-on at the paper. When she later tweeted that she would "give a kidney and five years of my life" to take back her error, it was impossible not to feel sorry for her. How cruel and unforgiving is our public culture that a talented writer could feel this way about a book review? The Sunday Book Review is, not to put too fine a point on it, the laziest, most boring section of its kind in the English-speaking world: staid, blandly written, with an emphasis on, well, correctness. No critics do less with more than its contributors. It needs spicing up, and a smart, funny, negative review was probably something her editors really wanted. It didn't quite work, and Goldberg feels bad about it and will almost certainly be more careful in the future. Maybe we should all move on?
But a liberal society values order and procedure, however defined, above principles. Charity is an impossibility when the axis along which all of our actions are measured is one of compliance rather than of good and evil. This is why responses to O'Donnell and Goldberg nearly always involved some kind of variation on the phrase "bad optics." It is difficult to think of a more vacuous phrase or one more redolent of the higher liberalism. When someone complains about the "optics" or suggests that this or that some malfeasance involves a "bad look," what he is saying is not that it is especially egregious in itself — we are all familiar with rudeness and sloppiness — but that it will appear bad to some unspecified observer.
We need to stop gesturing in the direction of that pitiless unknown hyper-critical onlooker, who is actually all of us at our worst.