Communication Made Easy — Speaking, Editing, Writing, Marketing, Networking Answers

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but words themselves are at the basis of all communication. Whether we are communicating for business or personal reasons, our spoken and written words matter. These posts will address issues and answer questions related primarily to business communications, as they affect writing, credibility, marketing, and networking.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Imus, Hip-Hop, and Our Right to Speak Freely

According to an AP newswire story released yesterday, a team of high-powered music industry executives met privately to discuss sexist and misogynistic rap lyrics” in the wake of the Don Imus firing for his recent incendiary racist comments. Now, I in no way want to be perceived as endorsing Imus’ comments. The fact is that anyone with a large public platform is responsible for remaining within the bounds of decency, whether that is a talk radio host, an actor, a sports figure, a supermodel, or a politician.

As James Poniewozik writes in "The Imus Fallout: Who Can Say What?" for the April 12 issue of Time:

A reasonable person could ask, What was the big deal? And I don't mean the lots-of-black-rappers-say-"hos" argument, though we'll get to that. Rather, I mean, what celebrity isn't slurring some group nowadays?

I exaggerate slightly. But our culture has experienced an almost psychotic outburst of -isms in the past year. Michael Richards and "nigger." Isaiah Washington and "faggot." Senator George Allen and "macaca." Mel Gibson and "fucking Jews."

The problem, for me, arises when we begin splitting hairs about what is decent and right and proper and what has “crossed the line.” One thing I’d love to understand is why this comment that Imus made “crossed the line” and none of the other bile he’s spewed during his nearly 30 years on the air was considered quite so offensive. Here’s the thing: like beauty, offense is in the eye of the beholder.

So why this time? Why this incident? What makes this particular inappropriate phrase so much more inappropriate than all the other garbage that has ever issued forth from this man’s mouth – or any other person of similar stature? When you look at the list of groups he’s insulted, he really appears to be an equal-opportunity jackass – and the fact is, he has a following. There would have been absolutely no way for him to have stayed on the air for as long as he did if people weren’t tuning in to listen. Isn’t it possible it was all for show?

So now, record execs are getting together to discuss the violence and misogynistic lyrics that have filled rap music for lo these last . . . 30 years. Say what? Now, because it’s a hot-button issue, we want to talk about it? Where were we, in terms of this conversation when the gangsta rappers were killing each other in the late 90s? Where have we been as “ho” entered the lexicon as an acceptable moniker for women of every race?

Oh, right, people are watching us now. So it must be the proper time to call a meeting to investigate whether or not we need to think about changes in our unbelievably lucrative industry. According to the AP story, “After the meeting ended, it was unclear whether there would be another one. [Hip-hop mogul Russell] Simmons' publicist released a short statement that described the topic [of the meeting] as a ‘complex issue that involves gender, race, culture and artistic expression. Everyone assembled today takes this issue very seriously.’”

You bet it’s complex. And we are now headed down a very slippery slope.

To reiterate an earlier point, anyone with a large public platform is responsible for remaining within the bounds of decency, whether that is a talk radio host, an actor, a sports figure, a supermodel, or a politician. If we’re going to live on this planet together in a civilized society, we all need to take ownership for how we treat each other. And something many people seem utterly aware of is that words ARE things. Words can incent violence or rally the masses for peace and goodwill. Words can cut to the quick or words can lift our spirits and touch our souls. Twenty-six little characters . . . more than 500,000 words (according to Wikipedia about the number of headwords in the Oxford English Dictionary). It is up to each individual what we do with the words we have. How well we own them. How many we use. What we choose to do with the ones we do own and use.

Legislating appropriate behavior is a tough sell, for me. I know that all laws essentially are designed to “protect” the greater good. But when it comes to free speech, one of the single most important principles upon which our nation was founded, this desire for control, the urge to legislate what people can say and where and when they can say it is distasteful at best, and dangerous at the worst.

Frankly, I would rather let guys like Imus, Tom Leykis, and Howard Stern spew out loud and in public – and for a very simple reason. At least then I know where they stand. And being that we do live in a free country, I have the ability, everyday and all day long, to change the channel if I don’t like what I am hearing. Given our freedom to write uncensored letters, I can write or e-mail anyone my opinion of their on-air musings. I can write letters to the editor or contribute an Op-Ed piece that calls attention to and/or dissects the scurrilous comments. I can blog my agreement or dissent. As long as we retain our freedom of expression, I have the equal opportunity to make my thoughts and opinions heard.

However, the minute we start exploring ways to limit what people can say on air or write in their song lyrics, we begin to limit our own freedom to dissent, comment, argue, and grow as a result of the ensuing conversation.

Color me liberal – or libertarian – but I don’t ever want to see that freedom impinged upon. The American principle of free speech promotes dialogue on public issues, but is most significantly relevant to words that are unpopular at the time the speaker utters them. Speak up now, or forever hold your piece.

Freedom of speech which is limited to freedom to say whatever a majority of the Pennsylvania legislature agrees with is not real freedom of speech.
– Pennsylvania state legislator, Rep. Mark B. Cohen

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