What Can We Learn From Ben Sasse, Bill Maher, And The N-Word?

By Ben Lewis 

“I wish I had said ______.”

How often have we all uttered those words?

You know the scenario. It’s all too familiar. Someone made a remark, and your response (or lack thereof) disappointed you. Perhaps you sat in stunned silence, or maybe in retrospect, you felt that your answer wasn’t strong enough. After there’s time to think, you come up with the perfect retort, but the moment is lost. The person is gone. The time is past.

“I wish I had said _______.”

How does it happen? I’d argue that most frequently, it’s because we were caught off guard. It was an unexpected comment, out of context, something you just didn’t expect to hear in polite company, so you didn’t have time to think.

You simply weren’t prepared for it.

A few weeks ago, Senator Bill Sasse faced one of those moments on Real Time With Bill Maher. Sasse, the Junior Senator from Nebraska, made a joke about Maher coming to Sasse’s home state to help out in the corn fields. Maher inexplicably decided to respond with an ugly comment using the n-word.

Of course, Maher was universally vilified for this incident. However, it’s Sasse’s response–or lack thereof–that has been in my thoughts fairly frequently in the time since. To be clear, I’m not here to condemn the Senator. I’ve followed his career closely enough that I’m convinced that he’s a principled man with whom I agree on some issues and disagree on others, but in the end, I think he is ultimately driven to do and say what he believes to be for the good of all mankind. I don’t believe for one second that he’s racist, bigoted, or that he approved of the comment. While some have said he was “laughing along,” I’m of the opinion that he was simply caught off-guard, on live television, and didn’t have an adequate response.

Yeah, just like us in many situations, he wasn’t prepared for it.

Early the next morning, he tweeted his own “I wish I had said…”

Like many of these moments that occur in my life, the after-the-fact response sounds great now, but would have been far more effective had it been uttered at the moment of truth, so I write today in hopes that we can all learn from what I perceive to be Senator Sasse’s primary error here: that he hadn’t fully thought through how he’d respond if another white person dropped the n-bomb around him. While we can’t always be prepared for every “I wish I would have said” moment, I’d argue that having a member of one’s own racial/ethnic group use a slur for a member of a different group is something for which we can and should be prepared.

It happens more than most of us would care to admit, and–unlike this particular incident–it usually comes from someone close enough to you that they feel comfortable enough to let a little bigotry show. It may not be a direct slur. Maybe it’s an off-color joke, “just being funny,” or a disparaging remark that blames an individual’s behavior on his or her entire race, religion, political party, etc. I invite everyone reading this article to consider how you will respond the next time a beloved family member or good friend crosses that line.  You’re far more likely to speak up if you’ve carefully thought about the words you’ll use when that moment comes, and speaking is crucial; silence can imply consent.

Furthermore, if we truly want to move toward being a kinder, more civil, less tribalistic society, it’s not going to happen by my tribe yelling across a chasm, on the internet, attempting to “fix” your tribe, nor by your tribe yelling back trying to fix mine. No, it’s going to happen up close and personal, through relationships, most likely within our tribes. If someone knows and trusts you well enough to be offensive around you, a gentle but uncompromising response from you has much greater potential to be a catalyst for change in that person than condemnation from afar.

If we’re going to change the world, it’ll be one life at a time. Let’s be that change.

40-something husband and father of two little girls. Christ-follower. Theologically conservative (mostly-Reformed, but I lean strongly toward believer's baptism,) and politically Independent. I don't buy into the notion that Biblical principles align neatly with the stated platform of either major American political Party.I’m deeply flawed and fail constantly (and sometimes spectacularly) at living a life that reflects the Savior I claim to follow. Put bluntly, I’m much better at writing about living the Christian life than I am at living the Christian life. Please don’t see anything I ever write as lecturing you from any sort of position of authority or leadership.Visit my personal blog at https://benelou.wordpress.com. I'm also a contributor at https://www.eatprayvote.org.


  1. I like Maher, and then heard him get schooled the next two weeks on “Real Time” by his guests. I’ve seen it happen before with comedians–they react and then go “oh, crap.” That’s what Maher did, just not quick enough. But I think he put himself in the same position this Senator was in of “okay, what the hell can I possibly say now?” I mean, how do you come back from that. They got painted into a corner there. Yeah, Bill Maher has been big on the apology bit, and I accept it. He sounded horrified afterward when recounting what was done and said with his guests the week after. I’ve been listening to it in my car b/c it’s on my iPod (yes, I still have one of those) and it took me a while before i realized what they were talking about because I didn’t see/hear the shocking episode before. Sometimes he goes too far, but this was the farthest (unplanned) moment in his career, I’d bet, and he’ll really be thinking twice now. It felt like his delivery was a bit slower the past few weeks just to make up for it…hmm…

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