Civil discourse -- remember that? Yeah, I don't either. But every few years it becomes the subject of heated discussion. Somebody "goes too far," producing a tsunami of outrage. Liberals declare the need for a "national conversation." Conservatives allege a liberal plot to enforce "political correctness."
Then everyone falls asleep, until someone again decides to push the envelope.
The most recent offender was exquisitely coiffed radio host Don Imus, who called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho's." In a lengthy career, the so-called shock jock has frequently made racist and misogynistic comments, such as calling Gwen Ifill of PBS "a cleaning woman covering the White House."
This time, his slur was caught by Media Matters for America, an online monitor of idiocy in the media. The organization widely disseminated the offending remark and a movement to fire Imus rapidly ensued with Al Sharpton leading the charge. CBS Radio and MSNBC both suspended Imus for two weeks. It was only when advertisers started bailing from the show that the two networks fired Imus in a mockery of encouraging racial harmony. But we know the truth: Racism is bad. Losing money is real bad, OK?
Prior to this brouhaha, web gurus Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales proposed the establishment of a bloggers' code of conduct. This followed the drama of high-tech author and blogger Kathy Sierra, who cancelled a speech after receiving death threats.
Of course, a "national conversation" has not arisen in either case. For one thing, Imus hosted many of the country's talking heads – the very people who could start such a conversation. Most of them remained silent or defended him. Even Frank Rich of the New York Times, probably the most rabid liberal writing today, penned his most incoherent column ever, basically excusing Imus because other people say worse stuff. Rich, of course, was a frequent guest on Imus' program.
Few bloggers supported the proposed code of ethics, which would forbid anonymous posting. The owner of the nation's most popular political blog, DailyKos.com, rejected it outright. Many believe eliminating anonymous posting would squelch discussion, even if it reduced hate speech.
I have mixed feelings about this. I view Imus' firing, as many others do, as an isolated incident in a culture that remains racist and sexist. It reminds me a bit of when Dr. Laura Schlessinger's TV show was cancelled following months of protest by gay activists. As in Imus' case, it was the failure of sponsors to support her that actually killed Dr. Laura's show. It wasn't her homophobia, and no "national conversation" followed.
That discourse has generally become less civil in America is obvious to anyone who has worked in media a few decades. The shouting matches on TV and the outright distortions by radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage are the most obvious examples. Political campaigns are all about personal attacks. We already see John Edwards being feminized (his hair's insufficiently nappy) and Barack Obama being racially stereotyped (he's not really that articulate).
The print media are as much a part of this as other media. Thoughtful writing requires too many words and isn't entertaining. It's better to be glib and, even better, shocking. Truth is secondary. Anyone writing for a living feels pressured to follow this pattern. And it's not as if this occurs in a vacuum. It appears to be the public taste.
You can check out the comments at the end of stories on Creative Loafing's online edition if you want to see personal vitriol protected by anonymity. John Sugg especially attracts a lot. For years, I've been stalked by another Atlanta writer who first wrote unsigned letters to the editor and now posts "anonymously" online – always resorting to the same personal insults. I routinely receive e-mail from readers who attack my sexuality. For years before that, people called my home. When caller identification became a universal feature, that finally stopped.
Most people have always suggested that I ignore ad hominem attacks. I don't find that always works for me. For example, a few years ago I filed and won a libel suit against another publication whose editor attacked me personally, completely out of the blue, two years in a row. I also often respond in their own angry language to bigots who write me.
I completely support the firing of Don Imus because I have learned that the only thing bigots understand is being treated with the contempt they treat others. Imus made unkept promises throughout his career to tone down his hate speech. Frank Rich worries that his firing will have a chilling effect on others' speech. Well, I sure hope so.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. His website is www.cliffbostock.com.
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