Let’s be clear about something: Tracy Morgan’s “choice of words” is not the issue, and what is “in [his] heart” is none of my concern. What is in the guy’s heart does not matter to me, and unless you know him personally, it should not matter to you.

What matters is that the actual ideas he was expressing–that gay children’s sexuality should be met with condemnation or even violence, and that the victims of bullying deserve to be bullied because they are not “tough” enough–these are things that people actually do think.

Some people do spurn or disown their gay kids, and some gay kids do become the victims of violence, and some parents of gay kids do turn a blind eye to that violence, or even participate in it. All of these things happen. It matters that these things happen.

It does not matter what is in Tracy Morgan’s heart. It does not matter whether he really meant the hateful things he said. What matters is that he said them, and that he seemed to mean them to everyone listening. As Kurt Vonnegut would have it, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

It does matter that Tracy Morgan is seeking to make amends. But this shouldn’t be about him, or about whether his fans have polite society’s permission to remain his fans. This should be about the things that he said, which at the time he seemed to mean, and which some people do actually think, even if Tracy Morgan does not happen to be one of those people.

We tend to let teachable moments such as this one pass us by. We tend to insist on apologies that–heartfelt or not–do very little to address the larger issues at work, and then we tend to ask, did this famous guy apologize well enough? And if he did, by some measure or another, then we tend to move on. And so nothing all that useful generally happens.

Nothing useful happened when Michael Richards said a bunch of racist crap at The Comedy Store, for example. And so far, nothing useful has happened as a result of The Great Tracy Morgan Kerfuffle.

And for that matter: Nothing useful happened when Chris Brown beat his girlfriend to within an inch of her life. Nothing useful happened when Michael Vick tortured and killed dogs for fun and profit. We didn’t have a serious discussion about domestic abuse, or about animal abuse, or about the corrosive nature of celebrity.

What we need right now is a serious discussion about gay rights, and about the prejudice and indifference and cruelty holding gay rights back. What we need is to say that, yes, Tracy Morgan should be ashamed of the things he said–but that far more importantly, everyone who really thinks those things should be ashamed. Everyone who thinks those things is wrong. The people in question, whether or not they are celebrities, should stop thinking those inhumane, immoral, shameful things. That’s the point.

If we allow this to be entirely about Tracy Morgan, then we’ve seriously missed the point. Again.

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