In partial defense of Tabitha Duncan and Roseanne Barr

 

Last week, Tabitha Duncan was fired from her job after posting a video of her and her (white friends) proudly declaring that she was going “N______ hunting.” She was also let go from the Air Force  Reserves. When interviewed later about the matter, she claimed that she was intoxicated at the time, and that she is not a racist. “I was intoxicated. I have black friends, I have black people in my family, I didn’t mean it.”

This is not the first time in very recent memory that such a claim was made. Roseanne Barr, star of the show Roseanne, also issued some tweets that contained what seemed to be virulent racist content. Her show was canceled. She was not released from Air Force Reserve duty. Later, when interviewed about the episode, she claimed, “I'm not a racist, just an idiot who made a bad joke.” 

Before we march Tabitha and Roseanne off to the cultural gallows, it is worth noting that, according to most definitions of racism, many people have racist beliefs (though most people clearly do a better job of keeping it to themselves). Enthusiastic public pronouncements of these two women as racists may be a form of scapegoating, and thus may be distracting us from an important conversation worth having around intoxication, responsibility, and self-control.

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Many people on Ambien have reported doing all sorts of things without remembering that they did them - cooking huge meals, parking their car in neighbors’ driveways, ordering stuff from Amazon, and the like. 

A person under the influence of Ambien likely does not lose control and then do something uncharacteristic, but rather loses control and does something they would ordinary want to do, but are usually able to resist urge. That person who ordered all that stuff from Amazon, for example - it was all stuff she really wanted, but she figured some secret admirer was sending it. Ambien reduces a person’s capacity to resist the urge to do something they would want to do but shouldn’t. Alcohol does the same.

Resisting urges is difficult. Freud and the Talmud and many people in between have told us that there is a battle going on inside of between what we think we ought to do and what we think we ought not do. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a and elsewhere) speaks of a battle between the yezter tov and the yetzer harah, two urges fighting for control of our decision-making capacities. The yezter harah - that’s the destructive, selfish, or negative one - is portrayed as relentless, cunning, seductive and cruel. It is likely to assert itself when we are unaware or when our guard is down - like someone who is under the influence of Ambein. 

It is not nothing to have an urge and resist it. We should all feel proud of every time we resist acting on the yetzer harah.

A person struggling with, say, alcoholism must be vigilant at all times not only to avoid drinking, but also to be hyper-aware of chains of behavior that are likely to lead to more urgently wanting a drink. Such a person must be alert to an array of behaviors, cues, friends, and certain times of year (Christmas is notoriously hard for some) that could lead down a dark path. 

Alcoholism might be a particularly acute and well-known form of addictive behavior, but there are many others that would fit into this category. There are meetings available to address issues of addiction to narcotics, eating, gambling, and sex. Not surprisingly, research has begun concerning social media addiction.

It is quite reasonable that, if there is such a thing as social media addiction, Roseanne is addicted. I assume she would respond in the positive to these six questions that are used to start the conversation about social media addiction:

  • Do you spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning to use social media?
  • Do you feel urges to use social media more and more?
  • Do you use social media to forget about personal problems?
  • Do you often try to reduce your use of social media without success?
  • Do you become restless or troubled if you are unable to use social media?
  • Do you use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job or studies?

Does it change anything if Roseanne is, in fact, addicted to social media, and she cannot stop herself from posting? Addiction often changes the conversation (though admitting addiction is an essential part of that conversation). Does it change this conversation?

My point is that many people are walking around with all sorts of addictions, and they fight those addictions all the time, and it is hard to do that, because a flare-up can be caused by all sorts of things. Resistance is hard, and people should be commended for resisting, to whatever extent that they do, the urges they have. Is there room here for compassion toward a person who struggles, like all of us, with self-control, and sometimes loses the struggle?

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Roseanne Barr and Tabitha Duncan have racist thoughts. Does that make them racist? The standard definition of racism, as offered by Merriam-Webster, is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

It is interesting to wonder whether “having a belief” and experiencing thoughts are the same thing. If I look at a Jewish person and experience the thought that they are likely associated with the Elders of Zion, does that mean I believe that? It is possible that “my beliefs” occupy one part of my brain, and such thoughts occupy another entirely.

But let’s use Merriam-Webster’s as a working definition, and assume that, yes, thoughts that arise in me do so because of my beliefs. According to this definition, many of us would be considered racist. Tests around implicit bias (like the Implicit Association Test) reveal that many white respondents have at least a slight preference for “European Americans over African Americans.” Though the IAT is quite controversial and findings are not consistent even concerning the same individual on different days, there is other evidence that racism and stereotyping are widespread in America. An article in the New York Times reports on studies that show racial bias among doctors (blacks and Hispanics treated by doctors for a broken leg received pain medication significantly less often than white patients with the same injury), school administrators (suspending black students at more than three times the rate of white students), police (who arrest blacks at 3.7 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession), and recruiters (it took 50 percent more mailings to get a callback for a black name. A white name yielded as much benefit as eight years of experience). There are many more examples.

It is interesting to note that while implicit bias is on the rise, there is some evidence that explicit bias is decreasing substantially. For example, from that NYT article, “In 1958, 4 percent of Americans approved of black-white marriages; today, 87 percent do.” Unfortunately, explicit bias does persist in America, but it may be that the average person, though aware of (or subject to) implicit bias, overrides that bias in their expressed opinions concerning race. 

Clearly Roseanne Barr and Tabitha Duncan also hold implicit bias. It seems that in a waking, unmedicated, non-intoxicated state, they generally do a pretty good job of overriding it, but then when certain chemicals come into play, things go haywire. There but by the grace of God go I, right? 

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Assuming the absolute best about Roseanne and Tabitha, we are dealing here with people who make a reasonable effort most of the time to not express racist sentiments that many other people also have. Occasionally they ingest some substance that erodes their capacity for that self-control, and they act out. When exactly, is the sin or crime? The sin or crime is upstream of expressing latent racist thoughts; it is in putting themselves in a circumstance in which those thoughts are likely to be expressed. 

This is not a question about liability, but of where in the timeline we expect a person to act differently than they did. Once Roseanne has taken Ambien and logged in to Twitter, it is no longer reasonable to expect her to make a different choice. The yetzer harah has free reign at that point. Where is there a decision in which the yetzer tov and the yezter harah are both part of the conversation? At what point on the timeline do they still have enough control to choose to act differently, and if they do not, then they are fully culpable?

The obvious answer for Tabitha is - don’t drink. You have a problem in that you, like many, experience certain racist thoughts, and when you get drunk they come out. So you are not allowed to get drunk, ever. You need to make that decision now, and stick to it. In Tabitha’s case, her expressing her horrible plans for that evening is not the sin. Being drunk is. 

With Roseanne, it’s a bit trickier, because you need to take Ambien for sleep issues. So you need to not have access to your phone or your computer. You need to make an Ambien dispenser that requires you to place your phone and computer in a safe, or automatically shuts off all internet and phone access upon ingestion. If these aren’t possible, you need to enlist the help of your friends and loved ones. 

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In Jewish law, one’s actions while intoxicated are considered to be expressions of your intention. From Talmud Bavli Eiruvin 65a:

One who is drunk: His purchases are valid, his sales are valid, if he does a capital crime he is executed, if he does a crime punished by lashing he's punished. As a general rule, he's like a conscious person for everything, except that he's free from the obligation of prayer… Rabbi Chanina says that [the above law] is true as long if he didn't reach Lot's level of drunkenness. Once he gets to Lot's level he is not liable in any of these cases.

In American law, there are many nuances concerning intoxication and liability. For example, in Alaska Stat. 11.81.630, voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a prosecution for an offense, but evidence that the defendant was intoxicated may be offered whenever it is relevant to negate an element of the offense that requires that the defendant intentionally cause a result. In Florida, evidence of a defendant’s voluntary intoxication is not admissible to show that the defendant lacked the specific intent to commit an offense and is not admissible to show that the defendant was insane at the time of the offense, except when the consumption injection, or use of a controlled substance… was pursuant to a lawful prescription issue to the defendant by a practitioner.

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Interestingly, that passage in Talmud Bavli 65a refers to the drunkenness of Lot, which would exempt a person from liability. 

The Talmud refers to the story in Genesis 19:

Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave.And the older one said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world.Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.The next day the older one said to the younger, “See, I lay with Father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go and lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night also they made their father drink wine, and the younger one went and lay with him; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.

“Lot’s level of drunkenness,” at which point a person is no longer liable for their actions, is the level at which a person “acts, but does not know what he is doing” (Tur and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 235). 

“Lot’s level of drunkenness” makes a person not liable for acts they would ordinarily be liable for, and their contracts are not valid. But what if a person knows that they are likely to reach “Lot’s level of drunkenness” and then repeatedly brings about that state? Lot himself did!

To wit: In the Torah scroll, there are certain words written with unexpected configurations - a big or small letter, a broken letter, an upside-down letter, or a dot over a letter or letters of a word. In the story of Lot and his daughters, there is a dot over the vav of the word uvekumah - “and when she got up.”

Rashi, the central commentator on the Torah, writes that “‘when the older daughter got up’ has a dot over the vav… to tell us that when she got up, he actually was aware. And still yet he did not prevent himself from drinking on the second night.” To what extent is a person responsible for what they do while intoxicated, and to what extent is a person responsible for the very fact of getting intoxicated? 

The writings of one rabbi clarifies that “one who has reached the level of intoxication of Lot is in fact exempt only for these things listen in the Talmud (cited above) - business, the death sentence, and lashes. But as for damages, there  is no doubt that person is liable, for that person should have be careful not to become drunk like Lot and to do damage. Who forced him to become so drunk so the point where he no longer knows what he did?”

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We know that this was not Roseanne’s first time at the rodeo. And it doesn’t sound like Tabitha was completely unfamiliar with the idea of N_______ hunting. We don’t hear her wondering, on the video, “N______ hunting?!?!? What’s that?!?!? That’s terrible! That’s racist!” 

These are grownups who need to take responsibility for whatever point in the timeline at which they can still make choices. “I am not a racist” is not an excuse because your racism or lack thereof is not the most important question to be asking. Rather, you are being challenged to see that you have an avoidable problem with self-control, and it is yours to take responsibility for, if you choose to. If you choose not to, then you deserve all of the public ire that is coming your way. If you want to take responsibility but don’t know how, there is help for that. If you do take responsibility, then I commend you for fighting a difficult fight.