April 18, 2007

The N-word, the H-word, the M-word, etc.

Dinesh D'Souza's stock isn't too high these days in the wake of what I understand is a perfectly dreadful recent book, but I have to agree with Clive Davis that he has a point here. (I refer to the opening remarks quoted by Clive; I have no use for or opinion on the banal "politically correct guide to insulting people" which follows.)

The Mohammed cartoon affair and the Imus flap are not identical situations, to be sure, but deploring the first whilst applauding the resolution of the latter - a description that fits many, unless I'm mistaken - would appear to reflect an assertion of the "right to offend" that is inconsistently celebrated. I am aware that it's possible to wiggle out of this contradiction in various ways, e.g., to argue, as many have, that free speech doesn't enter into it, that firing Don Imus was simply a matter of companies exercising their right to bow to pressure when they judge it is in their economic interests to do so. But I really doubt such an argument would have persuaded many of the Mo-toon defenders in the face of even remotely similar circumstances. It sure wouldn't have persuaded me. (I grant, also, that the fate meted out to Imus obviously pales in comparison to that visited upon Theo van Gogh, as a commenter to Clive's post points out: '"we scream bloody murder and demand accountability and heads on a platter": ah, the difference between literally and figuratively.' Yes, at least we didn't stab anyone through the heart or set fire to anyone's embassy - something to boast about, indeed.)

Personally, I understand the offense caused by Imus's remarks far better and more intuitively than I can fathom the offense of the cartoons, but then that's kind of the point, innit? I recoil from the former, of course, like most in my broad demographic category; defending the latter as a matter of free speech is pretty much a no-brainer. But a conception of free speech that varies according to how much one recoils, that depends on whether or not one disagrees with the sentiment expressed, or the degree to which one can sympathize with the aggrieved, is an exceptionally weak one, it seems to me. Something to think about, anyway.

Posted by Dr. Frank at April 18, 2007 09:09 PM | TrackBack

I think part of the disgust with the Imus "joke" is due to the fact that it was so inane and gratuitous. The cartoons, while obviously very offensive to some, were intended to make a political point. Viewpoint discrimination may be invalid, as you point out, but it's legitimate to afford a higher degree of protection to political speech than to vulgar attempts at humor, even if the speech at issue is equally offensive.

Posted by: Aaron at April 19, 2007 12:51 AM

I agree that it was inane and gratuitous. I'm not sure about the "higher standard of protection" though. I'd say a standard that subjects speech to a "good intentions" test (or an inanity/vulgarity test) would result in something less than free speech.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at April 19, 2007 01:24 AM

Maybe you are right in some absolute sense, but at least under U.S. First Amendment law, there is definitely a heirarchy of speech deemed worthy of protection. Political speech is right at the top and is afforded the broadest protection, and commercial speech is down at the bottom and is entitled to much more limited protection. I guess crass humor that doesn't make any real point at all is probably somewhere in the middle.

Now this is not a First Amendment issue, because there was never any question of government censorship in the Imus case. CBS and MSNBC are not subject to the First Amendment when it comes to deciding who gets to have a radio show. But I think the political/non-political speech distinction matters in thinking about whether, as a defender of free speech, one necessarily has to consider the Imus comment and the cartoons to be moral equivalents.

Posted by: Aaron at April 19, 2007 01:41 AM

Interesting comparison, but there are several meaningful distinctions between the Imus case and the Mohammad cartoon case.

The most obvious among these being that Imus' comments were not complimented with lynchings of black people, cluster bombings of sub-Saharan African cities, torture of civilians, invasions of African-majority countries resulting in hundreds of thousands dead, by European powers pursuant to any "War on [insert code word for blacks]."

But in the Mohammad cartoon case, the cartoons *were* complimented with all of the above exacerbating factors. Given this context, is it really that difficult to understand why a Moslem person's reaction to hateful incitement against them would be more pronounced?

Posted by: Aryamehr University at April 19, 2007 11:30 AM

Imus is not any different from Howard Stern although they have different styles. Everybody takes Howard with a grain of salt, so why the falp over Imus?

The reason is that Sharpton and Jackson cannot attack Stern as easily as Imus because Stern is Jewish and the Jewish people have seen a great deal of hardships throughout history and even as recent as WWII, not unlike the African-Americans (PC term).

Imus is an older, white, Christian male and therefore an easy target for the profiteering and race baiting pot-stirrers Jackson and Sharpton.

Those two evil men are wolves in sheep's clothing leading the lambs to the slaughter with their guise. If the people who follow them would see that they are hurting their cause, not helping it and making a TON of money in the process then they would lose their power and somebody else of sounder mind and intention such as Jason Whitlock or Barack Obama could become the "voice" of the African American population. Then again Jackson and Sharpton will just call those two gentlement "Uncle Tom".

Every time us white folk try to live in peace and harmony with the African American community, start to make progress toword racial harmony then Sharpton and Jackson are always there to blow an incident out of proportion or to find some sort of dividing factor to drive a wedge between black and white.

I hate those two guys.

Posted by: Zaphod at April 19, 2007 01:59 PM

Had the Virginia Tech incident occurred a week earlier, Imus would be completely forgotten. The real issue here is a little man named Les Moonves and how poorly he runs CBS radio. Currently, Imus was pulling a 0.0 share, if I'm not mistaken, as are Opie and Anthony. With a correction of +/- .1, there is a possibility that NO ONE was listening to either of them!

Moonves's new plan is for totally clean, safe radio, which will fail horrendously. The man is an idiot.

To Zaphod:
Imus is not the same as Stern in terms of grain of salt. As several people have pointed out, Imus sits with Senators, Congressmen, presidential candidates, and the top echelons of society. The idea is that his remarks shouldn't be allowed to fly in this crowd.

To Aryahmehr: "The most obvious among these being that Imus' comments were not complimented with lynchings of black people" - No lynchings, but I can almost imagine the letters written to the Rutgers chicks.

This all said, I don't see much of a difference between the first and the second situation.

Posted by: Nick at April 19, 2007 03:28 PM

I agree doc, but I think the Imus affair has less to do with the cartoon thing than with other, more home grown scandals.

A better analogy to me would be the Janet Jackson superbowl striptease, where you got something that happened on the airwaves that, while innappropriate, clearly wasn't the end of the world and most would be content to let it be a minor deal & forget it. But a few other people, who have their pet things they're offended by, saw an opportunity to get really, really offended and, as the days went by, continued to become even more offended until they went and got the other people- the ones who would've let it go by- to agree that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE and you end up with the editorials, continuing coverage of the scandal, overreactions, indignation that the overreaction wasn't strong enough and, finally, the end all massive overreaction that to some extent satisfies the spokesmen of the offended, if only because it made power brokers out of them.

Less a free speach issue and more a tyranny of the offended issue. I just made that up- tyranny of the offended. I think I spelt it wrong.

well that's my take but then again I don't know what I'm talking about.

Posted by: div at April 24, 2007 10:17 PM

Hey, re: equivalence of Stern and Imus --
Stern essentially WAS chased off radio (though Stern
had the obscene luxury of a multi-million dollar satellite
deal to run to) i.e., there were consequences for Stern's crass speech as well.
Moreover, Stern is a nerd. Imus is a bully.
Don't think Imus is being given a particularly
hard time -- he's had it easy -- there are far greater
tramplings of free speech going on that this doesn't even rate.
For example, why wasn't Michael Richards offered a hosting gig at
the Apollo? We are all clearly the poorer for it.

Posted by: HateyMcHate at April 25, 2007 12:19 AM