Monday, April 09, 2007

On Don Imus

Here are some scattered ideas on the Don Imus story (the comments and the reaction) that have been percolating for a while. I try not to merely re-hash outrage; I'll try here to raise questions I think are worth consideration. As expected, Leave the Man Alone has a unique, insightful take on the situation--do yourself a favor and go read what The HCIC has to say about it.

1. Where did Imus cross the line: with "hoes" or with "nappy-headed hoes"? I tend to think the misogyny of "hoes" would be expected from a guy like Imus in an entertainment radio setting; a few people would have been bothered, but there'd be no major uproar. But with the "nappy-headed hoes" and following conversation, Imus went racist, which is more likely to get a reaction. In this case, I think the misogyny fueled the racism and the racism fueled the misogyny, but the misogyny would have likely been ignored.

2. I'm always disturbed when people call for somebody to be fired for words. I'm not saying it's the wrong reaction, but it disturbs me. I've explained my basic worldview just last week: if you don't like what somebody says, the solution is to talk against it, not to attempt to suppress it.

Still, Imus's suspension is not a violation of his First Amendment right to free expression. There was no prior censorship of Imus's words, and there was no attempt by the government to inflict punitive damages on Imus after his words. His free speech rights remained intact--but the First Amendment does not guarantee a forum or audience. Imus's employers are well within their rights to suspend Imus if they feel his words are offensive or reflect poorly on their reputations. The First Amendment does not require any radio station to allow Imus onto its airwaves; during his suspension, Imus is free to express whatever he wants in all sorts of other forums. And furthermore, you and everybody else has every right to respond angrily to Imus's words, even requesting that he be fired ("demanding" seems like the wrong word here--how are you going to "demand" it? How are you going to follow through on your demand if it is not met?). If you think Imus should be fired, you should say so--I'm just rarely likely to wish for a person to be fired over words, however offensive I find them.

3. Is the reaction to Imus's words bringing too much attention to the words, doing more harm than good? I understand the reaction--if somebody is racist, he/she should be called on it. However, sometimes the reaction brings more attention to the issue, and that's not always a good thing.

For example, I believe Holocaust Denial is the most intellectually dishonest, hateful, reprehensible concept out there, and I react with revulsion to the deniers themselves. However, for practical reasons, I do not believe it should be surpressed by the government: suppression merely calls attention to the false and hateful claims while allowing the deniers to play the martyr and claim the moral high ground (as Deborah Lipstadt, who has far more eloquent things to say about the issue than I do, says, "I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens"). I'm also not entirely sure it should be addressed or debated by reasonable people: debate can confuse people into thinking there is legitimacy to Holocaust Denial, or at least can make people believe there are "two sides" (still, I recognize that sometimes it simply must be addressed). I think the best way to deal with Holocaust Denial is simply to ignore it (to a point, of course--in certain cases it must be directly dealt with).

How many people would have never heard Imus's comments if it were not for the reaction? I would not have. Would you have? Does the reaction just give more publicity to the misogynistic racist words? Would we as a society be better served ignoring insults like this? But at the same time, is it a bad thing that reaction is bringing attention to the insults? Perhaps it is necessary to constantly call out racism in all its form and make people aware of its presence, especially when the speaker has such a public forum to disseminate racism.

These are just some thoughts, some questions, some conversation points.


  1. Great post. I don't think ignoring this explicit statements of misogyny or racism is the correct way. Silencing them without dialogue or debate, either through censorship or ignoring, denies the attitudes that may need to be changed.

    For instance if I as a pastor were to preach some misogynistic sermon and nobody raised issue with it, how much damage could be done by it? What about all these people who might take my authority or "celebrity" (in Imus's case) to mean that their may be some truth claim to my words? Without someone speaking to the wrongness of those words they may die off from "public" arenas, but the lingering effects on the "private" may be more damaging if just ignored without dialogue or debate.

  2. I'll take you up on the publicity thing. I think that people generally overestimate the effects attention on these remarks have. I just don't believe that there are that many people on the fence about racism. Think back to Hardaway. Every reaction was either "Wow, what an asshole," or "He's totally right about them queers. Stop being a politically correct pussy." I didn't see anything resembling "You know, Mr. Hardaway makes some good points. I too am now against gay people." I think comments like this only serve to enforce previously held beliefs, not form new ones. Still a problem, I suppose, but not as big and not one that makes me worry about publicizing them.

    The other thing to consider is that when issues like this are raised you're only going to hear from the people who care most about them. People like me, who see systematic bias in everything (even places where it may very well not exist) get up in arms about comments like this. Someone with a more moderate voice wouldn't care as much so wouldn't try as hard to be heard. Just like PV got fired up about Barbaro and shared a lot of good information about the underbelly of horse racing. I, on the other hand, used him as an excuse to make jokes about Anna Nicole Smith. Animal Rights isn't my thing. On the whole, I think its better when animals aren't treated like shit, but I can only be passionate about so many things without having a stroke. The offshoot is that I am not only less likely to give my opinion on that topic, but I'm also less likely to seek out other opinions on the topic or even pay attention when opinions are presented to me.

    Sorry this got so verbose, but I found the post very intriguing.

  3. Oh, I generally agree with both of you. Here's the larger issue: whenever our country starts a dialogue about race, it's because some public figure says something racist. Then the majority gets to bond in agreeing that the words are bad, and the main thing we debate is why it's bad and what should be done about it. We respond to the words, some people demanding that the speaker be punished, as if removing the words or the person removes the ideas.

    But the far larger problem in our country is institutional racism, which is metasticized at all levels of our society. That's more covert and less simple, so we don't parade that issue out into our mainstream discourse. At all levels of our society (including government and economy), implicit racism is prevalent.

    I wonder if our outrage over occasional outbursts of explicit racism cover up the much more damaging implicit racism we see everywhere (Michael Richards' comedy bit was actually explicitly about racist words and how we respond to them, before out of hand).

    That's the point I didn't raise clearly enough in the post: the unanimous outrage over occasional racist words may mask the silence over the constant internalized racism in this country.

  4. After watching parts of the Rutgers press conference, I have a better understanding. When reading about this story on the same webpages I read for pro sports commentary, it's easy to forget one salient fact: these comments were directed at 18-21 year old women. Those Rutgers players aren't big-time athletes who should be used to abuse; they're the same age as the students I see regularly in the classroom. When I try to imagine some of my students reacting to a national radio host insulting them with derogatory racist and sexist terms, I'm hard-pressed to think of how they'd react. Most of the players who introduces themselves were freshmen and sophomores with soft, shy voices--not the sort of people who are immune to the intensity of a major national press conference.

    The disgusting thing to me is not that Imus used the insults he did, but that he directed those insults at 18-21 year old young women who very likely couldn't have any idea what was coming.

  5. Anonymous11:12 AM

    I dont know whats so bad it one comment it could be a lot worse and they are nanpy hoes when there in shool there legs are open more then they are closed

  6. Anonymous12:03 PM

    Imus' comments were racist and sexist. He should be fired, not given what amounts to a two-week vacation. Sometimes I forget that "Talk Show Radio Host" and "Complete Jerk" are often synonymous.