Sunday, June 29, 2008

Post No. 22: Do We Have Something to Fear Other Than Fear Itself?

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

Radio and television talk show host Don Imus drew attention to himself again last week. Upon hearing his latest controversial statement, one’s response might have been that Imus could not have avoided criticism under any circumstances. (Disregard, for the time being, whether we truly know him intimately enough to enable us to judge the motives underlying the statement.)

In the future, he might avoid making any statements, which include any race-related words, since various negative assumptions will be made regarding his motives, even if his intent is to make a positive statement.

More disconcerting was the statement by the NFL player whose frequent run-ins with the law were at the center of Imus’ unfortunate expression. Arguably, Imus’ comment could have been viewed as a statement condemning the frequent stopping of African-Americans by law enforcement officials, or justifying it. However, “Pacman” Jones fairly quickly concluded that Imus “obviously has a problem with African-Americans.”

One can only assume that Jones has some direct link to Imus’ brain and heart, to permit him to make such an unequivocal assessment. Along a similar vein, an argument might be made that Jones “obviously has a problem with the law,” or that he “obviously has a problem disassociating himself from the criminal element.”

George Carlin, considered by some to be an iconic comedian, died last week. It is generally agreed that he expressed the views of the counter-culture element of our society. However, what stood out most significantly was the frequent reference, by those who remembered him, to the “fearless” nature of his comedy.

What did Carlin potentially have to fear? What did he say that posed so significant a potential danger that we needed to be leery of him? Was there a concern that what he said, or might say, could damage or harm a certain segment of our society?

So here we are considering whether it is good for members of society to avoid making certain comments, or discussing certain subjects, in a public setting. (Ignore for now that the statements could be true, and honestly uttered.)

Just to carry our discussion a little further, images are also a form of expression. Some of you may recall the controversy surrounding the pairing of O.J. Simpson and Elizabeth Montgomery, over twenty years ago, in a television murder mystery movie, and the backlash that befell the sponsors. But that was long ago, right?

Recently, while I was listening to, but not watching television, a commercial aired for Cascade, the dishwasher detergent. The voice-over contained an African-American accent. At first, I couldn’t figure out why that struck me odd. Then, for some unexplained reason, I turned around to see if an African-American face or image would also appear in the commercial.

Let me ask you. When was the last time that you can recall seeing an African-American woman in a commercial associated with cleaning anything – whether it be laundry detergent, floor wax, window cleaner, or garbage bags? How many years have sponsors avoided projecting certain images to play it safe? The corollary reality is that many of us avoid making certain statements to play it safe, out of concern for offending others.

In light of the risks associated with making certain statements, we obviously have to carefully evaluate the consequences, or perhaps some might say, the “potential punishment,” associated with making statements, though honest they may be.

Furthermore, if we are not entirely clear as to the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech/expression, most of us will steer far wide of the danger zone.

During the course of the development and evolution of this blog, we’ve been surprised at a number of things, particularly in the expression of speech arena. A number of regular readers have suggested that the content makes many uncomfortable.

Many have indicated that although they would like to respond honestly to some of the posts, they feel reluctant to do so. There is a concern that, even using a pseudonym, once their true thoughts are revealed to the public, they might suffer negative consequences.

There is a scene in one of the classic Hollywood movies where the local, irresponsible, rich kid, who is attending medical school, is confronted by a childhood friend. She questions his flippant attitude, and lack of sense of responsibility, considering the talent which she considers him to have.

She notes that he could do so much of a positive nature for so many. She then goes on to say, “Most of us have no choice but to live useless lives.”

This leads one to wonder, “What is a person if not his or her expression?” Is freedom of expression the essence of freedom?

What we should appreciate is that when any talk show host, religious leader, celebrity, politician, or other public figure, manages to generate a following or an audience, they run the risk of saying something controversial. However, that ought to be a good thing, because it causes us to periodically stop and think.

Imagine a world where everything said in the media is uttered within certain prescribed boundaries, where no one is offended, surprised, intrigued, inspired, or in some manner affected. Imagine where we would be as a society if every utterance was something that we already knew, or accepted, or with which the “expression police” were comfortable.

There is an argument to be made that in this competitive, free market environment that is America, the speech expressed by its citizens ought to be evaluated by the same competitive, free market forces.

A speaker should fail or succeed based on the quality of his content, and whether the citizens are willing to “buy” his or her expression.

We ultimately discard and ignore products of little or no value. Are we afraid to let the market place decide the fate of those making offensive comments, in the same way that we let the market place decide the fate of poor products?

We might discourage someone from expressing a new idea or concept, in the same way that we might discourage someone from developing a new product or service, if we discourage expression on the front end.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle frequently accuse the other of failing to acknowledge the intelligence of the American people. If we are intelligent enough to assess and evaluate other issues and their value, why do we not possess enough intelligence to assess and evaluate (and thus accept or repudiate) personal expression, in whatever form it manifests itself?

There is something else that comes to mind. When we hear the rantings and ravings of callers as they express themselves on talk radio shows, we gain some insight into, and provide a forum for, a segment of our society that otherwise might go unnoticed and unheard.

Some would suggest that we might be a better society if they went unnoticed and unheard. However, isn’t it better for us to know with whom we are really dealing, and have a better appreciation of the issues and concerns of every segment of our society? Or is that something which certain forces do not want?

We are once again reminded of the words of the Laughingman:

“The worst conceivable way to silence one with whom we disagree is to stop him from talking. By doing so, you create a martyr to his similarly warped followers, and take him off the radar screen of the rest of the public. Had we, as a society, a bit thicker skins, we would broadcast these lunacies far and wide, with an appropriate apology to the more sensitive among us, demonstrate a little common sense for our fellow man, and let the fringe element drown in the laughter and public ridicule generated by their own thinking or lack thereof. Along with the right to free speech comes the right to make a public fool of oneself; and like the naked, fools have little or no influence on society.”

That is, of course, unless you are Lady Godiva or Angelina Jolie.

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

7 comments:

  1. Very interesting. I agree with a lot of your post, especially "rigidity limits our creativity as a people, and further limits our ability to craft new solutions to problems."

    I attended a predominately black high school (97%), and felt the experience was very productive for me. Not just because I got a small glimpse of what being a minority was like, but because it was an environment of education and all my classmates were teachers. For example: once I was joking around with a friend and called him "boy". I meant nothing by it, he knew I meant nothing by it and he explained to me that calling someone "boy" could be perceived as racist. He explained the history behind it, we had a conversation about it, and went on just as close as we ever were. I learned something about his culture, he had the opportunity to teach me something and neither of us had hurt feelings. It was an environment that encouraged growth for everyone. He could have very well taken offense and never spoken to me again, and I would have learned nothing, lost a friend and never really understood why.

    Yes there are times when offense is meant and should be taken, but I think those situations are fewer and farther between now. No one wants to feel like they have to walk around on eggshells, we have so much to learn from and teach one another and the fear of insulting and being insulted just pushes us further and further apart. Great post.

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  3. Found your question on blogger and I disagree with you. The setup they have is fine. Anyone who blogs is familiar with how to use it.

    I get a lot of regular visitors to my stories (and they’re certainly not as well done as what you have here.) You have to pose invitations for the readers to comment/ participate in your post. If you visit other blogs and comment-they will visit you. It’s really just that

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  4. First off, this reminds me a lot of George Orwell's 1984, and "thought police" was the first thing that came to mind if you're familiar with that novel (but I guess that's also pretty straightforward).

    I wholeheartedly agree with this post. It can be applied to smaller scale issues as well, like on a social level. Maybe it's because I live in California, but it seems like everyone communicates on a surface level as to not offend anyone else. Good intentions, yes. Effective? Not so much. I feel like we've reached a plateau in communication because so very few are willing to stretch the limits. This post definitely made me happy to see the issue worded so well. Usually I look for things to disagree with but I'm stumped.

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  5. I have to say...it is what it is. I don't know Don Imus personally but his comments seem to bother his audience from time to time and since they are the ones keeping him on the air, perhaps he should watch his language...hey it boils down to this...does he want to get paid or not?

    It's so sweet to have his back but the dude has bills to pay so he has to decide what matters most to him. But then again he is the shock jock so...whatever...

    On another note people are far too sensitive and they should let it go...I mean even if you thought someone was racist...so what...I have always thought the "so called" race war was a lost cause because there will always be a race of another origin and color....always!

    With that said I don't get too involved into the lives of celebrity dish...

    But it sure does make good gossip every once and a while. Still...simply put lets live and let live. People can say whatever they wish as far as I'm concerned...it's when they get physical that I feel they should be kicked out of society.

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  6. Thanks very much for your responsive comment. I respect your thoughts. There are several points that I would raise:

    1. Arguably no one should have to worry about having their speech (within limits) affect their vocation or ability to work. I'm not talking about being rude, discourteous, or perhaps something uttered that is dangerous. However, the expression of an unpopular opinion should not arguably affect someone financially.
    2. As for Imus' audience, I doubt that his regular listening and viewing audience would object to one particular statement, and argue for his dismissal or suspension. It's the folks who do not regularly listen to him, and perhaps do not like him, that would argue for some punitive sanction.
    3. An extrapoliation of your theory would lead to people simply espousing the party line, or the leadership's line, in order to continue to be employed and generate income for one's family.
    4. That's exactly my point to some extent. Let the audience of public opinion decide, by their listening or not, whether they find the comments of the speaker to be offensive or objectionable, not just those who oppose the speaker and have a forum through which they can disseminate their views and pursue their personal agenda.

    I appreciated the civil tone of your comment, and look forward to other sharing of views in the future. Our whole goal is to stimulate thought, and promote civil exchange of ideas.

    Thanks again.
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    ReplyDelete
  7. First off, this reminds me a lot of George Orwell's 1984, and "thought police" was the first thing that came to mind if you're familiar with that novel (but I guess that's also pretty straightforward).

    I wholeheartedly agree with this post. It can be applied to smaller scale issues as well, like on a social level. Maybe it's because I live in California, but it seems like everyone communicates on a surface level as to not offend anyone else. Good intentions, yes. Effective? Not so much. I feel like we've reached a plateau in communication because so very few are willing to stretch the limits. This post definitely made me happy to see the issue worded so well. Usually I look for things to disagree with but I'm stumped.

    ReplyDelete

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