Well, we've learned a couple of things in the past few weeks: (1) there is a radio talk-show host named Don Imus and (2)Al Sharpton has his own radio show!
Now that the tragedy is over and we've had some time to reflect, here is what I think we should all walk away from this with [with standard disclaimer - Imus sucks, not a fan, never listened, blah blah blah].
1. Sorry Seems To Be The Ignored Word
Here's the recap: Imus said three words, six-o'clock in the morning, relatively small audience, in a humorous context (almost contradictory to how the hysterics were describing it), about a select group of women that before that Monday most Americans probably were not familiar with and had no interest in.
Imus reacts by almost immediately apologizing, even going into the lion's den to make his amends and explain what had happened. Unlike the typical apology by a public figure, I believe that Imus was actually sincere. His apology wasn't "I'm sorry that the Rutger women's basketball team didn't realize that they are nappy-headed ho's," which is about what sums up the standard politician's apology.
Though Imus accepted his suspension from MSNBC and the inevitable one from CBS, he was still fired. So the lesson learned is: apologies mean nothing.
I've always said that coerced apologies have as much worth as wet toilet paper. I don't think his apology was done grudgingly; it seems that he truly was shocked that his words caused so much outrage. Yet, the forces in motion couldn't leave it at that. So not only are forced apologies meaningless, sincere apologies are also meaningless. So why apologize for anything?
Apologies are often avoided as long as they can be because it assumes guilt and then adds legitimacy to the outrage. Now there is absolutely no reason to believe that this isn't the case and that apologies won't lead to forgiveness, but rather more punishment.
So did the punishment fit the crime? Isn't what happened to Imus something we would expect to see had Imus thumbed his noses at everyone, reiterated his insult, emphasized the racial aspect and maybe expanded to be a broader racist comment? Ironic that Imus, who has a long history of leading and investing in children's charity initiatives, was in the middle of his annual charity drive when he was axed. If a man has given and raised millions for needy kids, doesn't that outweigh three regrettable words? Did he deserve to have his decades long career ended because of it, in all fairness?
Would the mob have accepted anything between doing nothing and canceling him...?
2. Mob Rules
Back in 2001, I rejected the notion that Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect was canceled because of the market. I also reject that now in the case of Don Imus.
The 'markets working' would have implied that people who actually listen to Imus, who may have actually heard the three words in question, turned the screws on advertisers and the networks to have Imus removed. That wasn't the case here.
Instead what we had was a couple of professional (and hypocritical) demagogues use their influence to threaten advertisers. Imus, for being syndicated and simulcasted for so long, really had a relatively small audience. His success is apparently based on a small, but loyal fan following. The hysteria over his brief and largely unheard comment was fueled by people who don't listen to him and were only aware of it because of some focused media obsession sparked by the likes of Al Sharpton.
The truth is that if the markets were allowed to work, Imus would still be on the radio. I get nervous anytime someone who is payed to speak his mind is then punished when the reaction to his speech is taken to the extreme.
What Imus probably should have done was immediately and publicly apologize to the Rutger girls for needlessly insulting them and give a public explanation for what he had done. He then should have told Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to go screw themselves. Obviously, it couldn't have hurt him to do so and it wouldn't have given these clowns the stamp of legitimacy.
I've recently engaged some people over elements of the Newsvine Code of Honor and the power of removing questionably offensive speech. Truthfully, Don Imus's comments would have possibly been collapsed and some people may have walked away thinking that the author of the comment was racist. Does anyone believe that his account would have been deleted by Newsvine for these three words?
3. Empty-Headed Losers Are Not Nappy-Headed Ho's
It's my turn to insult the women of Rutgers. Get over yourselves. I'd bet dollars to donuts that not one woman on that basketball team had ever heard (or maybe heard of) Don Imus before two weeks ago. I'll go even further and wager that all of them have heard and embraced the word 'ho' in some form of entertainment, if not within their own clicks, families and communities.
These women have behaved shameful. They made speeches about what strong, future-minded young women they are and their coach made the same sentiments. Yet they proved this false by invoking mental anguish and emotional stress, as well as one claiming to be 'scarred for life'. Give me a break.
If you are going to let some hardly known nobody like Don Imus offend you, then you have no future except as a victim. Harboring some resentment toward someone who insulted you is understandable. But this was carried a bit too far, symbolized by their agreeing to accept Imus's apology after he was fired, previously rejecting his suspension as not enough.
Here is a point that I wish a lot of people would give serious consideration for: offensiveness is not controlled by the speaker; it's given life by the would-be offended. These girls let Imus own who they are when they could have easily and respectably shown that it is indeed they who own who Imus is.
The point was made - these girls were not nappy-headed ho's, Imus groveled and an entire nation that was not previously aware of Don Imus now knew that he had tendencies to say stupid things. But this false sense of damage and victimhood...it's probably the most troubling lesson of all.
Now this doesn't excuse what Imus said but it does throw into the question the authenticity of the outrage. If we were to break the words down literally and without context, there were two elements to the comment. One (nappy-headed) was racial. I was never aware that it was overtly offensive. Dictionaries refer to 'nappy' as "kinky" or "tightly rolled" hair. Stevie Wonder refers to himself as a 'nappy-headed boy' in the autobiographical (and awesome) song I Wish. It's obviously racial in nature to refer to a 'happy-headed' someone and it may not have been true in Imus's case, but is it really that outrageous?
What I think was the most offensive of three words was 'ho', though it's not necessarily a racist term. Ho is lazy-speak for 'whore' or 'prostitute'. All that is racist about the word is that it happened to have been born out of the black urban culture.
Which brings us to...
4. The Black Culture: Racialism and Racism
The black urban culture, for lack of a more precise term, is an ocean of cultural influence. From language to dress to music to sexual appeal, I don't know if there's a better example of a minority exporting it's culture onto the rest of society. I'm also not aware of any other subculture that expects the rest of society to feel uncomfortable or outraged when it is embraced by the larger culture.
Every minority group has it's racial slurs. What separates the black urban culture from others is that there isn't an expectation in society for Asians to refer to those in their community as 'chinks'. Are their songs out there where Hispanics throw the word 'spic' around like it's a badge of honor? Those words don't pop up as offenses in pop culture because the words are generally scorned in any context regardless of who says it. Yet, this powerful black urban culture that is more mainstream and influential than I think a lot of people realize, uses words ad nauseum that when said by that culture, are used casually and even respectfully, by men and women, adults and children, young and old. When spoken by people outside of that culture, those words automatically invoke outrage.
Not to say that they shouldn't - but when some of the most exposed and popular music of these times are ladened with these words, when black stand-up comics can use them in racial tirades, when movies and the media demonstrate that these words are apart of everyday language-use within that culture - how outraged can we get when the rest of society picks up on it? Why does almost every element of media glorify this if it's so offensive?
Imus, from the conclusion I've come to, wasn't using the words as a sincere description of the Rutger players. He was mocking the girls and more importantly, he was mocking the term - in a sense, he thought it was funny because no reasonable person would identify college-minded champions as 'nappy-headed ho's'. That's why he was laughing as he said it. It wasn't meant to be taken literally or seriously. It's like telling a friend that 'Your mama's so fat, she has her own equator'. Well, no she doesn't. If she did, I might be offended.
No one should have been 'scarred for life' by those three words. It's an over-the-top technique used often in making comedic commentary. Martin Lawrence does it. Chris Rock does it. DL Hughley does it. Dave Chappelle does it. They make lots of money and get lots of attention by insulting white people, by pushing racial division, by offending people.
Why are they rewarded and Imus punished?