My mother-in-law posed some interesting questions about the recent celebrity scandals of Paula Deen's racist comments and Alec Baldwin's use of anti-gay slurs. Will they be treated differently, and why? My answer to the first question is "yes!" But my answer to the second is slightly more complicated.
Experience is on Baldwin's side. The famous star of 30 Rock, Beetlejuice, and The Cooler is an old hand at fomenting controversy and defusing it just as deftly. His repertoire of damage control is as versatile as his acting chops, ranging from the conciliatory to the hilarious in efforts to mollify the public. The most obvious choice for any celebrity in hot water is to apologize, which Baldwin did in this most recent scandal.
In 2007, after a disturbing phone message to his daughter was leaked to the press, Baldwin apologized with immediate, candid, "you-can-never-hate-me-more-than-I-hate-myself-for-what-I've-done" Roman Catholic guilt. He even wrote a book and campaigned to educate the public about "parental alienation," a malady that he and other men suffer from who become separated from their children through divorce; Baldwin argues obliquely that stress and frustration led to his misdirected anger.
In other cases, Baldwin has employed the classic non-apology apology maneuver of self-mockery, as he did in the case of the airline incident in a legendary appearance on SNL. If sympathy or comedy fails, he creates confusion as he did in the case of an inauspicious encounter with a paparrazo. This is a tricky tactic which can backfire if the public reads it as "avoiding blame." It only works if the other guy lacks sympathy or credibility, so Baldwin was successful using it against a group of people, the tabloid press, popularly regarded with disdain.
Sadly, Paula Deen lacks the record of self-destructive behavior needed to be properly prepared for what she is going through now.
Deen's only other controversy is the diabetes situation. This hardly counts in the court of public opinion; after all, what could be more American than living the way you want to, consequences be damned, and then pivoting to confront those consequences by signing contracts for new recipes targeted at diabetics and celebrity endorsements of diabetes medications?
In the current controversy, she tried to recycle this same tactic from her diabetes debacle - the pivot - with disastrous results. It translates to deflecting the blame, and that is something the American public simply cannot abide in other people.
Racism Is Worse than Homophobia
To be clear, I'm absolutely not arguing that this is how things ought to be. I would be thrilled if homophobic slurs merited the same contempt from the media and public officials as racist ones do, but that is not the case. In America, public debates about race don't include white supremacists or racial eugenicists, but when it comes to LGBT civil rights they include virulently anti-LGBT voices like the so-called National Organization for Marriage and so-called Family Research Council to name a few. On race, any legitimate conversation requires that both parties' "givens" assume that all races are equal; this is not yet the case in the debate about sexual orientations or identities. Today, using the n-word trumps just about any epithet against LGBT people.
Behavior vs. Morals
When Alec Baldwin blew up on Twitter, he was angry and said horrible things. But Baldwin is a famous liberal who contributes his time and wealth to making the world a more equitable place, and he is an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community, particularly on marriage equality. His moral core is better represented by consistent good works and financial contributions than a Twitter blow-up. His morals aren't bad; his behavior is.
But that's not as easy an assessment to make about Deen. True, Deen is generous and contributes to humanitarian causes like the Robert F Kennedy Memorial and Blessings in a Backpack. But as to her views on race or racism, we know nothing except what has recently come to light. Here's the picture we draw: Paula Deen holds racist beliefs privately, but she is politically savvy enough to hide them from the public. This is a double-whammy against her character. It not only suggests that she holds deep-seated racist views, but also that she is duplicitous in her private-public personas. Americans like neither of these, and so we conclude that, while Baldwin has bad behavior, Deen is actually bad.
Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda
My mother-in-law also raised the question that, if Deen and Baldwin are viewed differently for their respective missteps, should they be? Well, let us ask ourselves: Should Americans make judgments about the moral worth of celebrities based solely on weighing the media coverage of their offensive antics versus their philanthropy? This sounds like a dubious calculation of moral worth. Should Americans view racism and homophobia as different levels of "bad"? As I said before, no; Tony Perkins should be no more welcome in a public debate about sexual orientation or expression than David Duke should be invited to discuss racial issues. And finally, should the skill with which celebrities handle their public offenses mitigate the offense? Of course not.
Still, we cannot then make the argument that, Deen and Baldwin having both made similar kinds of offenses, they should suffer similar penalties. Our understanding of the situation is perhaps too mediated, too filtered through print and pictures. I am, however, fairly confident that three factors are in Baldwin's favor, but maybe that says more about us than him.