JOHN OSTRANDER: Hurling stones
I had a couple of other topics I was going to work on but then I read Mike Gold’s column this week and decided I had enough to say to on it and the subject of his column that I might as well do it in my own. Thanks, Mike, for supplying my column this week!
The question at hand was Don Imus’ racist remarks on his show, categorizing Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team (the majority of whom are black) as “nappy headed hos.” (For short, and because I don’t want to perpetuate the comment by repeating it endlessly, we’ll just reduce it to “nhh”.)
Imus has since apologized at length, doing the mea culpa circuit that prominent white men do when they get caught putting their feet in their mouths. There have been the chorus of calls for Imus’ resignation or firing and Imus has said he was just trying to be funny and he’s really a nice guy and so on. As I write this, Imus has been suspended by CBS radio for two weeks and MSNBC has dropped the television show. After a ritual flogging on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, Imus is now scheduled to meet with the women he actually insulted and their families. Nice to know we’re all keeping our priorities straight.
Caveat: I don’t listen to Imus. If I’m listening to radio in the morning it’s generally NPR and I don’t do that very often. So I’m getting a lot of this second hand or worse. I’ve never been into the whole “shock jock” thing so you can take what I have to say with that grain of salt. Also, I’ve had my own brush with hoof in mouth disease in a script where I referred to Asian people as Orientals. As has been driven home to me, Orientals are rugs; people are Asian. So I am not within sin. I’m throwing rocks anyway.
Let’s talk about Imus first. My first reaction on hearing all this was, “What an incredibly stupid thing to say.” Imus has been in the game long enough and he knows the field. He has no internal censor that suggested to him for a half second that referring to African-American women as “nhh” just might get him into trouble? Frankly, I always had the impression that Imus was sharper than that.
And then the cynical Chicagoan side of me kicked in. Maybe Imus’ attitude at the time was “Well, remarks like this sure gets people talking about ya, doesn’t it? Good, bad – does it matter so long as they don’t forget you?” Now people might listen in to hear how contrite you are, or if you’ll do it again, or because they think you should do it again. What’s a shock jock without a controversy? Or maybe he didn’t expect people to get upset – stuff like this has been his stock in trade, right? Isn’t it why people listen? Imus says what a lot of people think – isn’t that the justification? The current brouhaha is just a matter of degree.
I wonder – what would the reaction have been if it was the Rutgers men’s basketball team that lost in the Finals (they didn’t even get that far) and Imus had called them “nh (fill in the blank).” Actually, I’m betting nothing would have happened because Imus would have realized, before he said it, that it was going too far. But these are just female jocks. Who really cares, eh? Let’s call them whores because they lost a freaking basketball game. Maybe if Imus had just stuck with being misogynistic instead of racist, he would have been okay.
What happens next? We’re seeing phase one – contriteness, appearing on Al Sharpton’s show (there’s another one who knows the value of controversy). Next the meeting with the insulted women as I mentioned. Imus is off the air for two weeks save for a charity thing already scheduled. Next – forgiveness in some parts, condemnation in others. Then we’re all be on to the new outrage shows up and Imus becomes a footnote; that’s the great part of modern life – you don’t have to wait long for the new outrage. Or am I being TOO cynical?
Should Imus be fired? If the women who he insulted forgive him – which I think they will – then I don’t think anyone else has a beef. Imus has done a lot of charity work and that should figure into the equation. I think he’s really not a bad guy. I say put him back on the air after his two weeks and see if sponsors and fans are still there. Why? Because I want to see what all this says about the rest of us. Is he a valid voice or is he a dinosaur?
Assuming anyone pays any attention as the news cycle changes. Oops, there I go being cynical again.
Part Two. The question of Free Speech and the First Amendment.
My friend Mike says, “Now, I’m a First Amendment absolutelist, and there’s not “but” at the end of that sentence. If Winston cigarettes wants to resume sponsoring The Flintstones and the broadcasting outlets want to advertise it, that’s fine by me. It’s free speech, and it always applies to all sides of any debate.”
To start with, this isn’t a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment, in total, reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Nowhere in any of this Imus flap have I read that Congress is involved; not even the FCC (at the time I write this) is involved, unless Sharpton or anybody else actually filed a complaint. There are individuals and organizations who are irate and have publicly denounced Imus and have called for his resignation or to get fired; they may even be talking boycott of the sponsors. All of that is also Free Speech.
Secondly, I don’t think any of the Bill of Rights is absolute, including freedom of speech. If it were, you couldn’t have libel laws. Laws protect copyright despite that, right now, there are those who argue those copyright laws infringe on their free speech. (FYI – I like copyright.) In the times of war, newspapers have found their ability to print what they want circumscribed by the government and that gets permitted by the courts. You don’t have the right to yell fire!” in a crowded theater unless there is a fire. I forget who said it but there’s a saying that goes that my right to freedom of expression stops at your nose. Freedom of speech is not absolute.
It’s probably the scars of my Roman Catholic upbringing but I have trouble with absolutism. To me, that’s dogma and dogma is the place where questioning stops, thinking ends, and you’re just supposed to eat the transubstantiated wafer or drink the Kool-Aid. Everything needs to be questioned at some point or the belief really has no value. What is true for me? Is it something from my experience or is it what somebody taught me was true? Does the answer still have value for me? Or is it just a habit of thought? Even if my questioning simply brings me back to the same answer I had before, the process has validity because it then becomes my answer as opposed to what someone says is the answer.
My experiences form and mold what I think, what I hold to be of value, to be true. My beliefs are in flux and have been for maybe ten years. As I grow older, as my understanding changes, so do my beliefs and I thinks that’s to the good. My friends are my friends based on past experience, for example, but I never presume that this is an absolute. More simply put, the lesson I hold is – never take them for granted.
Do I believe in the principle of free speech? Yes. Do I think it’s an absolute? No. There are repercussions to what we say and there should be. As writers, we claim that words have power. That includes the power to harm. Or to heal. Or to change. Or to forgive. Words have great power and with great power comes. . .
Well, you know.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/