Whoopi Goldberg’s Most Revealing Comment Isn’t What You Think
What the Goldberg saga tells us about the state of modern-day discourse
“The Holocaust isn’t about race”. Those are the five words that landed Whoopi Goldberg in, perhaps, the biggest controversy of her career thus far. The Holocaust was, Goldberg argued, “about man’s inhumanity to man”. Indeed, it was about man’s inhumanity towards to man, but crucially it was also very much about race — one of those most violently racist campaigns in all of human history, in fact.
Shortly after her comments drew a furious response from viewers, Goldberg appeared on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. What was supposed to be an innocuous opportunity to promote her upcoming role in a Star Trek spin-off became a referendum on her future. In her last opportunity to contain the scandal that threatened to engulf her, she stumbled — describing the systematic detainment and murder of millions of Jews, homosexuals, Romani’s and more as an instance of white people “fighting each other”. Soon after, The View announced her two-week suspension from the show she had hosted for a decade-and-a-half.
That comment by Goldberg — perhaps even more ill-considered than that made by her earlier that week on The View — was hugely and offensively inaccurate. There’s no other way to put it. Watching back her interview, you can almost imagine the exact moment at which ABC Exec’s collectively buried their heads in their hands. This comment, however, wasn’t necessarily the most revealing thing Goldberg said that night.
It’s safe to say Goldberg’s two-week suspension pleased exactly no-one. Her detractors saw it as a displeasingly feeble response, while her defenders saw it as unnecessarily punitive. Nearly everyone agreed it was a hollow PR response cynically deployed to save face for ABC.
Goldberg’s comments, it has been widely acknowledged, almost certainly seem to have come from a place of ignorance rather than ill-will — a symptom and symbol of shockingly poor understanding of the Holocaust among Americans and, also of the pitfalls of viewing historic world events through the prism of Black-and-white American race relations. Indeed, in the segment that contained Goldberg’s now-infamous comment, she explicitly critiqued attempts to ban the graphic novel Maus — which seeks to raise children’s awareness of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
The last decade of American politics has trained ordinary citizens to act as merciless tribalists; reflexively defensive of their own side and gleefully unforgiving towards the other
Goldberg’s intentions, however, did not impact the decision-making of the executives at ABC — and they certainly did not appease her harshest detractors. During her appearance with Colbert, Whoopi herself seemed all too aware of this. “I’m going to take your word for it”, she said, “and never bring it up again”.
That quote is one of the most revealing regarding where we are as a society today. It shows that Goldberg both realises her attempts to explain her intentions are destined to backfire and also that her best chance to survive this scandal is simply to ignore it and deflect. It should go without saying that this is not a healthy attitude — which is why it’s all the more alarming that it’s probably the correct one.
The last decade of American politics has trained ordinary citizens to act as merciless tribalists; reflexively defensive of their own side and gleefully unforgiving towards the other. Our ever-declining attention spans — set against a backdrop of a revolving door of controversies — also means that no matter how bad a scandal is, chances are everyone will move on sooner or later. Public disagreements are no longer settled amicably and with understanding, they are treated with ever-grander theatre and then eventually swept under the rug, left to form a growing, festering rot of discontent and disaffection. This current scandal ensnaring Goldberg will inevitably soon be added to this pile.
Goldberg will likely keep the promise she made to Colbert to not talk about this again. But, make no mistake, if she does that, it almost certainly won’t come from a place of newfound enlightenment. Her view on the Holocaust likely remains unchanged. Instead, it is her opinion on whether it is worth the cost to share her opinions on this topic that will have changed. She will remain ignorant on this issue, but will now supress her own ignorance, rather than allow it to continue to be confronted.
This is deeply unhealthy for the health of public discourse and it’s an example of the sort of self-censorship that millions of Americans have been partaking in. It’s also what leads to the election of people like Donald Trump; people supress their offensive, antiquated viewpoints in fear of backlash and their resentment grows accordingly. Then, when someone comes along who unashamedly gives voice to their most unspeakable thoughts, they finally feel validated and vindicated.
After Goldberg made her controversial remarks, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor offered to go on The View and enlighten Goldberg and her fellow co-hosts about the reality of the tragedy. Had ABC taken up the offer, we might have been able to witness a rare moment of thoughtful discussion triumphing over outrage and self-censorship. Instead Goldberg was given a two week suspension to give everyone time to move onto a new scandal. It’s a disappointing move, but given our current cultural moment, it’s an utterly unsurprising one.