© 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
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