It was certainly legal to fire Don Imus. He was employed by private employers (at least to the extent that public corporations whose stock in trade is use of public airwaves can realistically be called private), so by conventional reckoning there was no state action, and hence no First Amendment violation. It was equally legitimate for the advertisers to pull their commercials so as not to be associated with Imus. There is really no legal question presented.
The story concerns only our society’s mores, not its laws. And on balance the loss of Imus was a gain for those mores.
We each harbor some racism. You cannot be born in our society, a society in which the echoes of slavery continue to resound, without suffering from it to some degree. The best way to cope is to acknowledge it and try to move on, the way you may have to acknowledge being alcoholic or having arthritis. You certainly don’t have to let racism define you. But you have to deal with it. Black and white, we all contend with it, and anyone, black or white or other, who denies this is lying to himself or herself. It is reflexive in our hearts.
The good news is that most of us, black and white, have got way beyond the point where (most of the time, anyway) the racist reflex dominates our behavior. Most of the time, most of us refuse to act on our prejudices, and refuse to let our differences deny us friendships, working relationships, and all the benefits of living in a diverse world. We understand at an increasingly profound level that what we have in common with those who look and/or speak differently is far more important than what distinguishes us.
All the same, the post-slavery conversion is incomplete, and won’t be complete in our lifetimes. The direction may be clear, but we haven’t reached the goal just yet. This gives rise to tremendous anxiety, just like any other discontinuity between our instincts and our consciously chosen ways of behaving. That is why jokes about sex are so powerful: we all are afflicted by instincts that, if we followed them, would quickly wreak havoc with our own lives and of all those we hold dear. We are ashamed, perhaps justly, of certain thoughts or feelings. And the gap between our desires and our social roles is papered over with a lot of lies. This discontinuity is not only distressing, but awfully funny. And it is very similar to our struggles with racism, which also have their intensely comic aspect.
Which brings us to schock jocks like Imus. They make their living by working between two limits: the limits of what is polite to say and the limits of what is truly taboo. To do their work, they have to exceed the first limit, day after day. In matters of race and sex, how we wish we thought and felt, how we would like to be believed by others to think and feel, represents the first limit. Beyond that limit lies much comic terrain. For some reason we like to laugh at the gap between how we think and feel and how we wish we thought and felt. And when we see that same gap in others, we laugh even harder; self-deception and hypocrisy are often hilarious. The jokes may be offensive, but they contain some kind of fidelity to things we know about ourselves or others.
But to be continue to be allowed to work, shock jesters have to observe the second limit, too. They need to be shocking enough to wring painful laughs from us, but they must play off emotional reality of some sort, preferably realities that make us or others ashamed. Shock jocks are licensed to give voice to views that the better side of us wisely rejects, and to rebel for the nonce against a conventionality that squelches the expression of those views. As long as it is clearly understood that these performers are just spokesmen for our rebellious ids, and not for coherent or serious political or social points of view, they probably do some good. They blow off steam, the anxiety created by the discontinuity between the good behavior we have by and large chosen and what we can’t help feeling. But where there is no emotional reality to the humor, the second limit is reached.
And, as Imus discovered, the limits move. While he wasn’t watching, jokes in which the whole point was the expression of a supposedly shared viewpoint that there was something ugly about female black athletes had become out of bounds. Why? Oversimplifying a lot, the crux of it is probably that there is no longer a critical mass of people whose unconscious view is that black female athletes are unattractive. (Noting, incidentally, that two non-starting members of the roster were white.) There doubtless used to be such a critical mass, and Imus would probably have been correct in working on that assumption not so many years ago. But there are just not enough people around who, even in the racist recesses of their minds, hold that attitude now, for the joke to work. Even our rebellious ids have moved on.
If I had to guess, I’d say the moment we knew the point had been reached would be the night in 2001when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won the Academy Awards. Certainly we were already there at the moment this last year when Barack Obama emerged as a perfectly viable presidential candidate. There’s just an increasing number of ways for people to look normal (as most people unconsciously think of normal). Probably most Americans, regardless of color or gender, looked at the photos of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and saw the exact opposite of what Imus was saying: a group of attractive young women. Not knockouts, but quite attractive enough so Imus’ comments simply found no purchase in our subconscious. None of us is color blind, but you don’t have to be that in order to evaluate objectively the attractiveness of people belonging to other races. And only someone literally blinded by racism could miss that these young women were perfectly comely.
And one thing about being a shock jock is that you have to shoot, but you better not miss too often. If the sum and substance of a joke is that you are blinded by racism to who is and is not attractive, and you trust your listeners are too, then, sorry, you’ve missed. And at that point your sponsors should be pulling the plug in their own economic self-interest, and your network should be taking back the megaphone it had handed you.
There has been a lot of indignant talk about the fact that Imus was pilloried by the likes of Jessie Jackson, whose odious remark about “Hymietown” reveals racist aspects of his own character, and Al Sharpton, whose disgraceful demagoguery over Tawana Brawley (which led to a defamation judgment against him) tells you everything you need to know about his integrity. There’s been the suggestion that Jackson and Sharpton were no better than Imus. That could actually be true (though in Jackson’s case at least I would disagree) but it’s not very relevant. Jackson and Sharpton are really politicians, and the things that can or should bring down politicians are different from the things that bring down entertainers.
The vaudeville hook that has pulled Imus off the stage has been wielded, as such hooks have always been wielded, because the joke wasn’t funny. If the Scarlet Knights had been truly ugly, the joke might still have been offensive, but people would have laughed, at least. The uncomfortable truth beneath the ugly joke would perhaps have saved Imus. Here there simply was no psychological truth, and no reason for anyone to laugh. And once that was understood, it was also clear there was no good reason for the man to be on the air. He was paid to make people laugh, and had only disgusted them with his own moral ugliness.
The real significance of the affair, then, isn’t that so many people found the joke offensive. It’s that so many people failed to laugh. There was no ring of truth to the joke, not even to the racist lurking in each of us. Our inner racists weaken a little bit, year by year, and here they just weren’t strong enough any more to do harm. It’s possible to make too much of it, but the consensus on that point is a telling and encouraging sign of where we are on our long march away from slavery.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn