I am a fan of Bill Maher. I share his criticism of political correctness and the “twitter-mob mentality” that stifles legitimate discourse. Like Maher, I recoil at “cancel culture,” which seeks to ruin anyone who refuses to tow a certain ideological line.
But I take exception to Maher’s recent monologue at the end of his show Real Time, in which he defended the term “Chinese Virus.” Calling criticisms of the term “political correctness,” he quipped “can’t we even have a Pandemic without everyone getting offended?”
No good can come from promoting a term that has been used by white supremacist types and vulgar twitter ideologues to stigmatize Chinese people and encourage violence. Counter to Maher’s claim, legitimizing the term is dangerous, especially during a pandemic. Maher gave his stamp of approval to what has been an excess of the far right, one that was initially adopted and later abandoned by President Trump.
According to an ADL report published earlier this month, since the beginning of this crisis in January 2020, “there have been more than 44 reports of AAPI individuals being threatened and harassed on the street.” Asian Americans have been told to “Go back to China.” They have been blamed for “bringing the virus” to the United States, and targeted with racial slurs, spat on, and physically assaulted.
“Chinese virus” is noxious because it implicates Chinese people, not just a government, in the charge of spreading contagion
Maher asserts that “there are always going to be idiots out there who want to indulge their prejudices. Sorry Americans we are going to have to ask you to keep two ideas in your head at the same time..this has nothing to do with Asian Americans, and it has everything to do with China.” Maher is uncharacteristically overconfident in the ability of Americans to make subtle distinctions, especially when living in a state of extreme austerity.
Under ordinary circumstances, anti-Chinese sentiment would unlikely gain ground among mainstream Americans. But this is no ordinary downturn. Many Americans will fall on desperate economic times and suffer the loss of family and friends, without the solace of time-honored rites of burial and mourning. During the Great Depression, Mexican migrant workers and Jews were scapegoated for other people’s bad fortunes. We simply can’t predict how prone Americans will be to accepting disparaging conspiracy theories or even resorting to violence. During a pandemic and economic depression, all bets are off. If there was ever a time to refrain from wanton stigmatization, now would be it.
Maher contends that it’s politically correctness gone awry to protest “Chinese virus.” True political correctness, however, aims to stifle legitimate discourse. No one’s opinion is curtailed when, for example, society forbids the N word. And no one is prevented from offering critiques of the Chinese government or even Chinese cultural practices because society frowns upon the use of the Chinese virus epithet. It is just common decency, not political correctness, to refrain from using demeaning language toward minorities.
Maher points to reports that four months into the pandemic, Chinese wet markets, presumably responsible for breeding the novel virus, are reopening. Proscribing the term Chinese virus need not mean banishing criticism of hazardous practices in certain wet markets. Maher conflates two very different issues. One is the potential danger of using the term “Chinese virus,” and the other is the truly PC stricture against all criticism of other cultural practices. It can be wholly irresponsible to speak of a “Chinese virus,” and wholly legitimate to push for a ban on the exotic animal trade in the wet markets of Wuhan. Refraining from labeling the virus in a manner that endangers Chinese Americans doesn’t let the government of China off the hook.
Maher contends that other viruses have been named by their places of origin such as MERs and Ebola, so why not Chinese virus? There is no hard and fast rule for how viruses must be named. SARs and AIDs describe the effects of the virus on the body not the place they emerged. As we speak, Chinese people are being singled out because of this stigma. No one in Old Lyme, Connecticut is going to be beaten up in the streets for purportedly giving rise to Lyme’s disease.
If President Trump can stop using the term because it might harm Asian Americans, so too can Bill Maher and other moderate critics of China. Indeed, we Americans can do two things at once. We can protect Asian Americans by refusing to go along with the “Chinese virus” slur, and we can hold the government of China accountable for its behavior during and after the pandemic.
David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.