One of the major headlines of the past week is the controversy surrounding a remark by radio host Don Imus, who described the African-American women of Rutgers' basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." Initially, Imus brushed off criticism of his remark by calling it just an "idiot comment" he made. The furor has grown though, with Al Sharpton and others calling for his firing, and Imus has been suspended for two weeks. He is now in full-blown apology mode--the familiar I'm-not-a-racist, I didn't mean to be offensive routine.
I don't have any personal feelings regarding Imus; I've rarely listened to his show, and I doubt we would agree on very much. (Though he doesn't seem like a bad person, and much less reprehensible than, say, Rush Limbaugh.) But I am annoyed by the huge flareup over this comment. That isn't because I agree with his distasteful remark, but because I think his critics are misguided.
Yes, Imus made an off-color comment to a group that didn't deserve it--the Lady Scarlet Knights, who had a remarkable run to the NCAA finals after overcoming several early season losses. But I don't see how his comment is that big a deal. Those great women basketball players shouldn't care what he has to say about them. They just made it to the NCAA Finals. Should it matter at all to them what some cranky old radio host whom they've never heard of makes fun of them? Not at all.
What Imus thinks of the Rutgers team is completely irrelevant and in no way diminishes their accomplishment. His words should have no effect on them. And they wouldn't, were it not for this whole conflagration which is giving such power to Imus's comments. The Lady Knights had never heard of and didn't care about Don Imus a week ago--now it seems like everyone is expecting them to be the anguished, suffering victims of his words. Imus shouldn't have that power, and those players shouldn't be told to be victims--they're so much better than that!
Meanwhile, let Imus continue to make edgy comments and lame jokes. Unless he or anyone else is saying stuff that actually causes harm to their target, we should be very careful in declaring anything too "sensitive" for discussion or humor. While the intent may be to protect people, we instead wind up making a big deal out of things that aren't so.
I'm terribly disappointed that Imus has been fired from his radio show. I'm disappointed because of how much people read into and extrapolate from what was just a bad joke. That joke was conflated to be an example of the depth of Imus's shocking racist views, something I don't believe. Anyone with any familiarity with comedy, especially the commonplace edgy comedy of our times, knows that joke ≠ personal belief.
But nonetheless, since Imus's joke was viewed as his actual belief, I'm more disappointed at what this episode demonstrates about our tolerance for letting people air their opinions. Free speech isn't just an esoteric concept you can defend only at cherry-picked times or from cherry-picked voices. Let people make up their own minds and ignore/counter disagreeable or detestable speech on its own merits. That is much preferable to using censorship and making a sacred cow of some topic.
Pat Buchanan, of all people, had an interesting column on this subject where he raised a couple of salient points about the hypocrisy involved in this situation:
While the remarks of Imus and Bernie about the Rutgers women were indefensible, they were more unthinking and stupid than vicious and malicious. But malice is the right word to describe the howls for their show to be canceled and them to be driven from the airwaves – by phonies who endlessly prattle about the First Amendment.
If the word "hos" is a filthy insult to decent black women, and it is, why are hip-hop artists and rap singers who use it incessantly not pariahs in the black community? Why would black politicians hobnob with them? Why are there no boycotts of the advertisers of the radio stations that play their degrading music?
I think even people who generally agree that this incident has been blown out of proportion are reluctant to defend Don Imus because of his forked tongue and checkered history of verbal offenses. But that's precisely the problem.
Pretty or not, we have to refrain from taking the easy solution (in this case mass condemnation, censorship). Confront the problem in a constructive manner (rational refutation of his remarks, and then moving on)--that's what's in the best interest of all parties involved.
A former head of Martin Luther King's SCLC asks us to "Drop the Race Card."