Stomp the career of Don Imus. That was my instant gut reaction when I heard he'd called the Rutgers' womens basketball team "nappy headed ho's" during his April 4 Imus in the Morning broadcast. People didn't like Al Sharpton's rough treatment of Imus. Well too bad. I've not been a listener before now and gee, I'm so sorry I missed out. Al, on this one, speaks for me, honkified cracker freak flag flier though I be.
But then I made the mistake of listening to the Rutgers team addressing Imus' comments. And frankly, I was convicted by them. First by their coach, who as a black woman has encountered all this racial and sexist poop from the git go. But especially I was knocked out by their spokesperson, Essence Carson. The grace, candor, yet lack of rage from this powerful and ultra-articulate woman caused me to reassess my own response. The sorrow and pain and shame of Imus' remarks were her cross to bear, hers and her team mates. But I heard not one bitter word -- though some quite angry words -- from them. I also heard pain, sorrow, bewilderment, and an overwhelming sense of having been robbed of their precious golden moment in the limelight. And underneath it was the undertow of a willingnes to forgive.
I'm watching for that Essence Carson. I hope I get to vote for her one day, to see her on the national stage again, because at such a tremendously young age to have such powerful insight and wisdom bodes great things for her. And maybe, if we can hear her, us as well.
The team agreed to meet with Don Imus, trying to understand. He was fired before that meeting, we now know, but went to it anyway and, after apologizing and talking with the team for some time, was forgiven by them.
So. Where does that leave me and my initial "off with his head!" reaction? Well, Imus does have his pleasant side (he does a lot of charity stuff, beyond the call of duty). And he does make a living off being verbally outrageous. Did those carrying his program jump the gun in firing him? Would there have been a better road to take?
Heck, I think I know of one. Take Essence Carson on as co-host of the Imus show. Do a regular series of programs on hate speech, racism, anti-woman rhetoric and action, and even the overall phenomenon of meanness currently so popular among American comic performers, radio pundits, and their audiences. Stripping Don Imus of all his media power feels good right now, but could be less productive than keeping him on air yet demanding of him not only an apology but an apology that is very specific in how he will live it out and speak it out through his media megaphone.
Look. Don Imus' career is about living on the edge with his mouth. Like (to use an unrelated speaker) Benny Hinn or some other fairly wild preacher, Imus gives his audience the kind of show they want and reaps the benefits. While Hinn blows on people and makes them fall down (Holy Spirit breath? Whew!), Imus blows meanness on people and everyone (until now) digs it and gives him lots of money and media power. He was a golden boy until his tongue twisted around a phrase (actually started for him by his producer's "ho" comment) that suddenly transgressed the unseen boundary between harharhar and nonono...
I have ripped on Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter for their dehumanizing verbal assaults on others. (I'm not dehumanizing them -- they may be lovely people in the privacy of their own homes.) But apparently we Americans like this Limbaugh kind of humor, whether or not we like Limbaugh's politics. We think dehumanizing speech is okay, but not if it breaks down into racial catagories. Well, that (excuse me) sucks. Dehumanizing speech is just that... dehumanizing. And it conditions us all to see certain others as less than human.
I'm still not settled on whether or not Don Imus should or should not have been fired. In fact, every time I think of that phrase, then see Essence Carson's face, I get fairly frantic with anger and disgust. So okay, Don Imus broke the rules of insult, the rules of dehumanization. He's fired. I'm not crying over it. Good enough?
Not really. Who is "protected" and who is not protected from hateful speech? Can I, for instance, rant on Bush's policies and attempts at usurping Christianity to justify them, yet not dehumanize Bush the person? How we treat those we most vehemently disagree with on both opinion and action levels is how we find out whether or not we are really human ourselves. "Love your enemies," Jesus said. Oh sure.
Can we take stock of why Imus was so popular in the first place? What, exactly, is funny about hearing someone be cruel? Does it not mean that we ourselves are cruel? What if the target of cruelty is someone with no great gifts such as those so obviously possessed by the Rutgers team, and who cannot defend her or him self? Limbaugh, for instance, has targeted the homeless. Then there's his treatment of folks in the middle east. Is it any surprise that a relative who is a big Limbaugh fan recently told me, "I think if anything like 9/11 ever happens again, we should go over there and kill all those ragheads once and for all." Just rhetoric, right?
Even when those targeted are powerful people, is it right to dehumanize them for others' collective vindictive enjoyment? We seem at times to be a people who thrive on seeing people get what's coming to them, or what we imagine in our own small hearts and minds what is coming to them. But the terrible truth is that we are all here together, suffering together, hurting one another with words and actions or helping one another through humble acts of love and compassion. And maybe some things in between those two bookends...
Language does matter. And, whether we like it or not, it is unhealthy to subscribe to media where the language of dehumanization becomes entertainment. It is sick, it is wrong, it is sin. And it tells us way too much about ourselves.