April 14, 2007

This Progressive Values Free Speech: Reacting to Imus

Jesse Jackson 2013Confession time. Prior to the recent media hullabaloo over Don Imus' on air statements about Rutgers' basketball players, I had no idea who the hell Don Imus was. Now that I've seen news report after news report, I've been able to gather is that he is a radio personality. In this post, I suggest that the real story is not what Imus said but how society has reacted to it and the implications of this reaction for the free expression of ideas.

In case you've been living under a rock, Imus referred to Rutgers women's basketball players as "nappy-headed hos" on his show. The outrage in response to his statement was swift and not particularly surprising. The comment has been repeatedly characterized as being both racist and sexist. It appears that this sort of thing was nothing new for Imus. Following the Rutgers statement, he was initially suspended for two weeks, but when some big advertisers pulled their support for his show and it became clear that public outrage was spreading, he was canceled.

It is obvious that Imus should not have said what he said in this forum. He is free to think whatever he wants, and he should be free to express himself when he's doing so as a private citizen. The thing is, Imus was not acting as a private citizen here but as an employee of various companies who were providing him with a different sort of forum than that which most of us enjoy. The stations which carried his show are perfectly free to drop it when it is clear that their continued support for him would hurt their business. This is not public radio; these are companies in the business of making money. Imus was their employee, representing their company in a public sphere. This was far from a private individual expressing his/her views as a citizen. Thus, it is difficult to fault the stations for canceling his show once they decided that it was in their interest to do so.

I am, however, somewhat troubled by the inconsistency with which this sort of decision is applied. Is what Imus said worse than what we regularly hear from Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, Beck, O'Reilly, etc.? I'm not going to make that claim here except to say that I believe it merits some consideration. Is the difference one of economics in that the market for these hate-mongers is more profitable, immunizing them against consequences for their statements? Does it reflect social intolerance of racism and continued acceptance of homophobia, etc.? I don't have the answers, but I believe we should ask the questions.

The main source of my distaste for this saga relates to what I saw on a recent episode of Countdown With Keith Olbermann. There was Jesse Jackson making sweeping pronouncements that made little more sense than most of what comes out of his mouth. Amidst Jackson's frequent mispronunciations, made-up words, and often incoherent babbling, he managed to get across a fairly disturbing message. He repeatedly stated that his goal was one of "detoxifying their airwaves." He sees Imus as only the beginning and made frequent reference to utilizing the momentum generated by the Imus story to expand the fight. Anything he considers inappropriate must be removed. It soon became clear that Jackson has no intention of stopping with public airwaves. He referenced a comedy club which has starting fining or banning comedians who used "the N-word," expressing his approval. He's not after education, sensitivity training, or other less draconian measures; he wants bans, prohibitions, and possibly even censorship.

As I sat there listening to Jackson, I couldn't help thinking of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. We on the left aren't too crazy about Falwell's ongoing efforts to impose his morality on us, and I'm not sure that we should tolerate Jackson's quest to do the same. I'm all for fighting intolerance in all its forms, but I've never understood how any reasonable person can think that restricting the sorts of free speech which make them uncomfortable is the appropriate way to do this.

Update: At the time I wrote this post in 2007, I still considered myself a progressive. I cannot do so today, and the popularity of Jackson's approach among progressives is a big part of the reason for that. Today, I identify not as a progressive but as a classic liberal who embraces Enlightenment values, including freethought and the free expression of ideas.