What’s the difference between kindness and leniency?

By Mary Sprague

Copy Editor

Naming a more dissimilar pair than lesbian TV icon Ellen DeGeneres and staunch conservative former president George W. Bush is a difficult task — the two are about as opposite as the poles. But, when they were spotted side-by-side at a Dallas Cowboys game on Oct. 6, it became clear DeGeneres and Bush were at least casually acquainted.

DeGeneres addressed the incident during her monologue on the Oct 7. episode of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” She and her wife, Portia de Rossi, attended the game on invitation of Charlotte Jones, daughter of the Cowboys’ owner. Sitting next to Bush was unintentional and unexpected.

However, it’s DeGeneres’ defense of their relationship that have many up in arms.

“I’m friends with George Bush,” she said. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different. For instance, I wish people wouldn’t wear fur. I don’t like it, but I’m friends with people who wear fur.”

Her insistence on kindness and empathy continued.

“But just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean I’m not going to be friends with them,” she said. “When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

While this generous take is noble and well-intentioned, it’s an unexpectedly one-dimensional response from the woman who paved the way for LGBTQ+ representation on television. Many feel this defensive statement as a betrayal of trust, and excusing the former president’s conservative, homophobic, and destructively nationalist politics.

Molly Roberts — in her Oct. 11 article, “Ellen DeGeneres tells America she’s better than us,” from The Washington Post — dissects the crucial issue of proportional immorality that DeGeneres fails to account for in her code of kindness.

“Owning a mink,” Roberts said, “is different from orchestrating a historic foreign policy failure punctuated by a secret torture program and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.”

As public, political figures, both DeGeneres and Bush are automatically representative of their respective mindsets. Their positive interaction during the football game and DeGeneres’ subsequent appeal to a naïve code of morality that ironically prioritizes the human lives of the exact people that are suppressing personal freedoms is a worrying signal from an iconic liberal to audiences that evil is excused, if not vindicated by virtue of shared species.

“There exists a sliding scale of badness,” Roberts said. “You can probably hang out with fur person on one end and you absolutely shouldn’t hang out with neo-Nazis on the other.”

This friendship with fur person is certainly feasible, and a reasonable choice. We all have friends that we disagree with, whether about politics or TV shows. Maintaining relationships with people whose beliefs are different than ours can be a fulfilling, complex, and self-affirming experience. On the other hand, we are responsible for holding our friends accountable for harmful opinions or icky behavior.

People cannot improve without honesty, which is opposed to DeGeneres’ trademark kindness.

“[Kindness is] an awfully clever brand to have,” Roberts said. “It has the heft of virtue without any of the heaviness that comes with actually being virtuous. What is right, according to this particular code, will almost always align with what is convenient.”

Robert’s definition means that being kind is, sometimes, being lenient. To rephrase with college in mind, it may be “kind” to let a friend get another person’s name wrong for fear of awkwardness, but it’s not “right.” It’s always better to talk to your friends about any disagreements or misunderstandings.

Along the same line, it is important to talk about beliefs and opinions with your friends. Especially, if they are different. Honest, open communication facilitates growth for all and deepens relationships.

In the same way, it is of the utmost importance that we hold our friends accountable for their actions. There is kindness and there is leniency. Letting your friend accidentally call someone the wrong name is incomparable to letting them commit a crime. As people living and working on a small campus, it’s important that we expect — that we demand — dignity, especially from our friends.

If I were in Ellen’s shoes, simple niceties and basic politeness would have sufficed. I could not, ethically, call myself friends with George Bush.

In a Washington College setting, I am willing to remain friends with people until they prove themselves committed to immoral, unethical acts. My definition of immoral and unethical includes but is not limited to: any and all forms of unapologetic racism, sexism, homophobia, and general, willful, acts toward the denigration of other people.

Sometimes, open communication can work wonders. Alerting friends to the repercussions of their words is necessary, and often proves beneficial. People, I’ve seen, are willing to learn from their friends.

If a person continues, however, to talk in a derogatory way without any inkling of remorse, it’s sometimes necessary to cut them off. I’ve had to end relationships with friends who persisted with racist and homophobic talk and acts. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. I value my morals more than people who belligerently refuse to learn about the world in which they live.  

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