The attack on free speech gets hairy

The sacking of US shock jock Don Imus for referring to 'nappy-headed hos' suggests we're all too weak to cope with obnoxious remarks.

Alan Miller

Topics Free Speech

Don Imus has been a radio shock jock for over 40 years. Last week he was fired from CBS, adding to his two-week suspension by MSNBC earlier in the week, for comments he made about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Talking with his producer Bernard McGuirk about the NCAA women’s title match between Rutgers and Tennessee, Imus referred to the Rutgers team as ‘nappy-headed hos’. (‘Nappy-headed’ refers to someone – usually black – with tightly-coiled hair. ‘Ho’ is just plain rude.) This led to a media frenzy and demands from Reverend Al Sharpton, among others, that he be sacked.

Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, argued that ‘what he said has deeply hurt too many people, black and white, male and female’. He went on to call for Imus’s firing unless he issued a full apology, claiming: ‘As journalists, we firmly believe in the First Amendment and free speech, but free speech comes with responsibility, and sometimes with consequences. His removal must be that consequence.’ (1)

Claims of ‘I’m a believer in free speech, but…’ are becoming more frequent these days. Such reservations about full-blown free speech help to legitimise a climate of censoriousness. Don Imus made a racial slur, even if people are still debating whether it was ‘ho’ or ‘nappy-headed’ (or both) that was the problem. However, the immediate demands to ban people or get them fired do nothing to challenge the views they hold. Instead, they consolidate a climate where people become ever more fearful of what they say, and where backward ideas are rarely challenged head-on.

Howard Stern – the arbiter of bad taste and no friend of Imus – suggested that Imus should have said ‘fuck you, it’s a joke’ and moved on. While Stern may like to posture and swagger (and many are now asking why he is not reprimanded also), he has missed the central point. Today, one of the worst things that you can be accused of is to have caused offence.

Cenk Uygur, a presenter on liberal Air America’s The Young Turks, was one of many who argued for free speech but with limitations (2). It is almost a reverse of the classic ‘I’m not a racist, but…’, except here it is supposedly the most liberal commentators in society who are calling for gagging orders. ‘I’m for free speech, but not when it offends….’

In which case, there is little point in being a supporter of free speech. If it is only acceptable to say things that do not offend or outrage anyone else, then we denigrate all that is important in our democratic tradition. Yes, sometimes people can be nasty, tasteless, infuriating and offensive – but adults surely are able to deal with, expose and ridicule such views. It is much better to point out, loud and clear, that Imus is an ignoramus with a mouth that’s even bigger than his head, rather than to demand that the powerful networks silence him and protect the rest of us from his apparently dangerous words.

Another problem is that once the debate is defined in terms of personal offence, then anyone’s comments can be called into question. While Sharpton accuses Imus of racism, other commentators accuse Sharpton of anti-Semitism and suggest he should be silenced. Michelle Malkin in the New York Post abhors the misogynist sentiment in Imus’s comments, but then goes on to demand that Sharpton et al stop being hypocritical. She also criticises the music of Mims and R Kelly and all the other popular artists who use ‘offensive language’, and the radio stations and execs that broadcast them (5). And on it goes.

Frank Rich in the New York Times said the only way to deal with someone like Imus is by having ‘more free speech’. He quite rightly argues that the sacking will have a chilling affect across the entire media about what can be said (6).

People who believed in freedom and universal equal rights used to argue that when one starts calling for bans, it is ultimately only the supporters of freedom who suffer. This wise observation has been replaced by a pernicious and nasty sentiment that we can’t possibly handle comments and ideas that we disagree with. Instead, we have to go to the headteacher (someone with the power of censorship) and ask for the name-callers to be silenced.

Worryingly, it is seen as acceptable openly to talk about ‘white trash’ as though everyone can accept that term without reservation (just look at the coverage of the death of ex-model Anna Nicole Smith). Yet when we discuss other groups, there is a patronising notion that they will be debilitated by the trauma of being offended. Furthermore, whether something is offensive appears to be entirely subjective. As a discussion on CNN’s Paula Zahn Now illustrated, there’s nothing inherently offensive about the phrase ‘nappy-headed’ – it all depends, apparently, on who is saying it and why. Free speech is being trumped by etiquette.

With Staples, Bigelow Tea and other big brands withdrawing their advertising from his shows, and every commentator from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton and Ann Coulter weighing in, Don Imus has been canned. More than this, however, American society has taken one more step towards promoting the idea that only certain people are permitted to say certain things in certain ways.

Across the board, on campuses and in the workplace, in the media and society generally, there is a dangerous tendency to shut down debate in the guise of protecting the ‘vulnerable’. This is a travesty and should compel us all to argue fervently for free speech at all times. Anything less is just not acceptable: censorship leaves bad ideas unchallenged, as they get brushed under the carpet rather than being interrogated; and it limits what can and cannot be discussed out in the open. In the words generally attributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon.

Previously on spiked

Munira Mirza slammed tip-toeing around debates on race as just another way of policing discussion. Brendan O’Neill, after attending a ‘damp squib’ of a rally, concluded that there was much confusion over definitions of free speech and how far it should go. Alex Hochuli said that the removal of an ad-campaign after one complaint highlighted the pervasive tyranny of the individual. When David Irving was imprisoned and Ken Livingstone suspended, Nathalie Rothschild declared that while Michael Richards was wrong to racially abuse his hecklers, she still loved Cosmo Kramer. Or read more at: spiked issue Free Speech

(1) Critics demand Imus be fired for Rutgers remark, USA Today

(2) Defending Don Imus, Huffington Post, 10 April 2007

(3) The Civility Squad Skirts the rap rats’, New York Post, 11 April 2007

(4) Everybody Hates Don Imus, Frank Rich, New York Times, 15 April 2007 (registration may be required)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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