opinion

Tolerance is officially out of fashion. Just ask Ellen DeGeneres.

“Did you spit on her?” My mother asked me.

That was her response to the news that I had – as an 18-year-old – passed Margaret Thatcher in a lobby in London.

Margaret Thatcher was the most divisive (by then, former) Prime Minister that my birthplace, Britain, ever had. Her Prime Ministership saw a kind of brutal dismemberment of workers’ rights and social safety nets that forever changed England. There were strikes that went on for years. Riots in the streets. Terrorist bombs going off in city bins. It was a heightened time.

And so to me, my mum’s half-joking reaction seemed entirely normal.

We live in heightened times again. As the whole furore over who Ellen DeGeneres sat next to in a fancy, football corporate box has driven home.

Ellen – a small-l liberal icon, a married, gay woman, a Hollywood powerhouse – broke bread with a particular kind of devil when she was seen laughing and joking with former US President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys vs Green Bay Packers NFL game in Dallas on Sunday.

And she is paying for it. Even after she addressed it in a monologue on her show, saying that her brand of kindness did not discriminate, and that she has friends of all kinds of political persuasions, the criticism kept coming. America, it is confirmed, is not in the mood for kindness.

Watch Ellen’s monologue about George W. Bush on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Post continues after video. 

Video by TheEllenShow

Actor Mark Ruffalo tweeted, “Sorry, until George W. Bush is brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War, (including American-lead torture, Iraqi deaths & displacement, and the deep scars—emotional & otherwise—inflicted on our military that served his folly), we can’t even begin to talk about kindness.”

Publications usually kind to Ellen themselves, have been scathing.

“Ellen, George and the death of uncritical niceness” shouts Vox.

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“Ellen, George and the limits of unconditional kindness” echoes Vanity Fair.

Teen Vogue‘s piece titled “Ellen DeGeneres’s George W Bush Debacle Is A Lesson In The Drawbacks Of Assimilation Politics” suggests that Ellen’s “just be nice” brand is outdated and dangerous in the time of the resistance against a hardline president.

“Powerful liberals,” writes Lucy Diavolo, “have an interest in rehabilitating the image of a former American president, no matter how grim his record may be, for the sake of preserving faith in the version of America where rich people on the right and left can have a pleasant Sunday afternoon together.”

That is not the version of America that these writers think they’re living in now.

George W Bush might seem “okay” these days, in comparison to the US President who currently sits in his old office. But he wasn’t okay. He – along with another polarising British PM, Tony Blair – was instrumental in the decision to send  troops into Iraq over Weapons Of Mass Destruction that did not exist. He badly bungled the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which saw thousands of Americans dead and affected the lives of an estimated 15 million. He stood in the way of changing laws on Same Sex Marriage, vocally and deliberately. He was not okay.

But once, what would have been okay was allowing a political figure to have a post-political life. To entertain the possibility that, since leaving office in 2009, Bush may have mellowed, may have changed his views, may have understood, with the hindsight of history, the enormity of his decisions. We might have allowed that he’s listened to different kinds of people and seen the culture change. We might have tolerated that, in a different time.

But now the stakes seem too high for niceness. And not only in America.

Imagine finding out that you are a pro-choice woman who’s found out you’ve been seated next to Barnaby Joyce at a work function of your nightmares. The man who only weeks ago was telling a crowd that women would be murdering babies at full-term if NSW’s non-radical bill to decriminalise abortion passed.

Holly Wainwright, Jessie Stephens and Mia Freedman discuss Ellen DeGeneres’ stance on George W. Bush on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues after podcast.


Or imagine you scored free tickets to the rugby and found out you were sitting next to Sydney radio “shock-jock” Alan Jones, fresh from his comments about Jacinda Ardern deserving a back-hander and a sock down her throat for the comments she made on Australia and climate change. Imagine Kyle Sandilands was on the other side, weeks after saying that he thinks that the bible omitted the Virgin Mary being “chock-a-blocked behind the camel shed” in the story of the nativity.

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Or imagine being an advocate for the humane treatment of refugees and taking your seat on a plane next to Peter Dutton, who deliberately threw out the fake term “anchor babies” to describe the two daughters of a Tamil family who are still battling to keep their kids together on Australian soil, where they were born.

Or, even, imagine you were backpacking in Rome, and the guy who just hung an effigy of schoolgirl environment activist Greta Thunberg from a bridge, pigtails dangling as she’s hung from the neck, was sitting next to you on Eurorail.

Unlikely, yes. But still. What do you do?

The answer is, most likely, that you would be civil and decent, to a point. Because most people are. For all the hatred and heat of Twitter, and the rampant bullying behaviour we can’t get enough of on reality TV shows from MAFS to The Block and the trolling on Facebook and the online bullying school kids are living through daily, most people are decent.

So you’d nod and smile, you’d keep small talk to a minimum. You’d try to avoid flammable discussions.

Many of us also intrinsically understand that it is through close encounters that tolerance grows. Did the small Queensland town of Biloela, for example, feel as passionately as they do about keeping the Tamil parents Nades and Priya on our shores before they actually met a family of asylum seekers?

But what do we then do with the fact that people we don’t understand, or people we actively disagree with, don’t have horns?

It’s not helpful, in the midst of a battle, to see your opponents as human. To kill or be killed, the enemy must not have a face.

And right now, America is at war with itself, as is Britain, and – to a lesser extent – so is Australia. Our politics swing on close to 50-50 splits of populations who couldn’t disagree with each other more. About immigration. About the economy. About First Nations People. About the Environment. About Women’s Rights. About the drought.

Civil debate seems quaint in the face of a US President who tweets vile insults at anyone who disagrees with him with impunity. It’s not surprising that many have decided the time for civility is over.

But really. When it’s gone. What’s left?

So, no, I didn’t spit on Margaret Thatcher.

But I did give her a very dirty look.

Where do you stand on “kindness” in the face of polarising views?

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