Sticks and stones may indeed break one’s bones, but it doesn’t follow that words are never hurtful. The use of racial and ethnic slurs and just plain old lying taint public discourse and do real damage to our social construct.
It is no defense of Don Imus to say that he just one of many who use the airwaves to demean others and promote their own self interest – – Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are just a few who come to mind. Neither does it excuse his remarks to point out that Republican-led legislation punishing networks for bad language on air failed to address the problem of some commentator’s serial lying and distortions or the denigration of one’s persona on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.
Personally I stopped listening to Imus many years ago when he joked about a Mexican being run over on the freeway in California, after which he said the road crew “swept up two barrels of crude.” I wrote a letter to the network and received a bland kind of response about how part of Imus’ appeal was his outrageousness. And because I haven’t been listening regularly I’ve missed a lot of what seems to have passed for humor on his show from him and others – – for example about Gwen Ifill: “Isn’t the Times (NY) wonderful, it lets the cleaning lady cover the White House” or references to Barak Obama as that “colored fellow” or the constant “fat” remarks about everyone from Elizabeth Edwards to Hillary Clinton.
Outrageous, racially insensitive call it what you will, such commentary is nothing new on the Imus show. But what finally pushed the issue beyond acceptable limits was his remarks about the Rutgers girls basketball team – – so needlessly offensive and directed at young women who belonged in the spotlight for their accomplishments, not because some radio potentate decided to make a joke at their expense. Unfortunately, nothing will ever change the effect of those remarks. The experiential reality is that denigrating language tends to depress feelings of joy and success especially among the young and vulnerable. Why anyone would think it funny to tarnish the team’s great achievement with rude personal aspersions that would forever cast a shadow on the last precious moments of their season is hard to imagine.
But why are other self-ordained pundits permitted to continue with scant criticism of their inappropriate, often ridiculous and sometimes patently false comments? In one of his more distasteful interludes Glenn Beck interviewed newly elected Representative Keith Ellison and said he was a little nervous about Ellison’s loyalties and felt he should say “Sir prove to me you are not working with our enemies” adding that probably a lot of other Americans felt the same way. He has also referred to Rosie O’Donnell as that “fat bitch.” No doubt he gets away with such remarks because of underlying national prejudices about Muslims and dislike for O’Donnell’s point of view.
And then there’s Rush Limbaugh. No matter how far-fetched and absurd his positions and regardless of his personal failings, he has a loyal audience that defers to him on a variety of issues. Perhaps referring to women’s advocates as “femi-Nazis” strikes a responsive chord among his mindless devotees. More curiously, when he felt a need to suggest that Donovan McNabb was supported by the media because they wanted a black quarterback to make good one had to suspend serious judgment about how professional sports are managed. What teams in the NFL and the people who cover the sport choose a quarterback because they want to make some politically-correct social statement? Was the choice of other black quarterbacks like Randall Cunningham and Daunte Culpepper also social engineering according to Limbaugh?
During the last election Limbaugh made the comment that in discussing the candidacy of Sherrod Brown (later elected senator from Ohio) the “liberal NY Times” neglected to mention he was black. As it turns out Brown is not now and never has been black. What was Limbaugh’s point and where did he get his information, or does he just from time to time make stuff up? Inquiring minds want to know. But inquiring minds are hardly the bulk of Limbaugh’s audience and often not a sufficiently energized segment of the electorate
The Imus issue may, however, have touched a nerve and made people who were previously uninvolved stop and consider how they want the country’s discourse to be conducted. It should never have become acceptable for racial, ethnic or anatomical slurs to form the basis for on-air humor as Imus would have us believe. Such thinking isn’t just a dumbing down of America; it is a sliming of our national ethos.

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