Friday, April 13, 2007

the imus dilemma

Interesting story in the New York Times on how, in a world where radio personalities are constantly saying moronic, outrageous things, Don Imus was the one who got torpedoed, in part, according to the Times, because it was a slow news week.

I've got real mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, the offending conversation was pretty repellent. While the big quote is Imus describing the Rutger's women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos," the racism is really a sort of casual, throw-away thing compared to the sexism represented in basically slamming these women for not being sufficiently stereotypically feminine.

Yes, Imus is a racist, sexist idiot, or at least talks like one, and according to wikipedia this is not the first time he's gone over the line, but taken in a broader context, the ability for an outraged public to run a pundit out of town could be a problem.

First off, people say worse and get away with it. Bill O'Reilly said a kidnapping victim wanted it, yet he's still on the air. But then, racism seems to get people in more trouble than anything else nowadays, just look at Michael Richards. (Note to shock jocks and pundits: you're really better off being sexist or attacking victims of child molestation than uttering racial slurs. At least then Al Sharpton won't use you as part of his fame machine.)

But the real problem with muzzling Imus can be summed up in two words: Lenny Bruce.

Like Imus, Bruce used racist language. Of course, his purpose was very different, as discussed in an excellent article at Bruce used provocative language to comment on society; Imus uses provocative language for cheap, crude laughs and, at least subconsciously, to promote the status quo (be prettier girls, even if you play basketball).

There's a temptation to throw in, "also, Lenny Bruce was funnier," but that's not the issue. The issue is that, you can't actually differentiate Bruce and Imus in any meaningful way in terms of law or the rules of censorship. They both used language many people found offensive and they both got in a shitload of trouble for it. So if we start saying, offensive language has to be kept out of public discourse, then we get rid of Imus but also lose Lenny Bruce.

I tend to feel that what this country needs is a lot of dialog. By this I don't mean just quiet, politically correct academics discussing issues in a reasonable, moderate way. I do mean that, and I wish there were more of it, but I also mean people being outrageous, people saying abhorrent things, other people slamming people for saying abhorrent things, and basically the whole messy process of figuring out where we are and what we think by talking to one another.

I can't feel too bad for Imus, who struck me as unpleasant when I saw him on TV a few months back (my mom's a regular viewer; she says he constantly slams George W. Bush, so she likes him for that). Imus will probably land on his feet somewhere, perhaps setting up on a satellite radio station like Howard Stern did. He's a popular guy, and I've read he does go out and raise money for worthy causes and good stuff like that. I tend to think his racism and sexism are so ingrained that he just can't see that's what they are; I don't think he means to denigrate other races or women, I think he just has this narrow view of how the world should be and he expresses it in unfortunate ways.

But I do feel bad for discourse in this country. I don't think things are as restrictive now as they were when Bruce was doing stand-up in the 1960s - South Park was always able to cross lines with abandon, but Imus' firing looks like another bit of a slippery slope we've been sliding down for the last 10 or 15 years of trying to save the world from bad thoughts by shutting people up. And I don't think that's the way to do it. I just hope I will always have the opportunity to say that.

No comments:

Post a Comment