Thursday, April 12, 2007

On free speech and the thought police

Free Speech and the Thought Police would be a great name for an 80s glam-rock cover band. Must credit Practically Harmless.

Okay, so Don Imus is a turd, and I still can't stand him, but even I can admit that this entire controversy has become more protracted and impassioned than it absolutely needed to. I do think, though, that it's provided a grand opportunity to really, honestly reexamine racism and sexism and the way we address them. Those two issues take different forms these days than they did in the 1860s or the 1960s, and it could be really beneficial to look at the newest incarnations and figure out what to do with them.

A commenter suggested yesterday that the best thing we can do in this situation is ignore punks like Don Imus and tell the Rutgers players, "Girls, don't listen to that nonsense. Pay it no mind, because you're better than that." And that approach does sometimes work. When I was in elementary school and getting teased as elementary-schoolers tend to (was a dork then, still am a dork now, I'm afraid), the easiest thing was just to ignore it and imagine a future when my tormentors were pumping gas into my glossy new Jaguar. It worked, to some extent, and eventually said tormentors shut up about my eyebrows or my pant cuffs or my advanced math class or whatever the taunt of the day was and moved on to another victim.

But we're not dealing with institutionalized Algebra-teasing. People haven't been killed for having unruly eyebrows. People don't get paid 25 percent less than their peers for wearing high-waters. Racism and sexism, as much as many people would like to deny that this is the case, are still significant problems that can't be banished by simply ignoring them and "being better than that."

I would even go so far as to argue that ignoring them would make them worse, because the things we ignore are the things we accept. To ignore Don Imus's remarks would have been to say, "It's okay to marginalize people based on their race and gender. You can really say anything you want about them, and no one will defend them, because they're not worthy of respect." For that matter, to ignore, as has been pointed out, the racism and misogyny in the rap music industry sends the same message. Inaction speaks louder than words.

Words are a major point of contention in race and gender. A lot of discussion has been had about the concept of reclamation, of taking back slurs and redefining them to sap their power. People have argued about the use of the n-word (which, obviously, I won't myself use), debating whether its common usage makes is less powerful or just spreads the racism a little wider (and welcome back to the "but black people do it all the time!!!1!!one!" argument). Queer, once a serious insult, has now been largely embraced by the gay community. Bitch magazine is a similar example of reclamation.

Hell, I'm a bitch. I'm proud of it. And when one of my likeminded friends addresses me as a bitch, I know where she's coming from, and I can enjoy it. But when the guy by the fountain calls me a bitch for not lobbing him a quarter, it's not the same at all. It's the same word, and I'm the same person. But I know for sure the guy isn't saying, "You're a strong and capable woman, and I celebrate your independence and determination." He's denigrating me in a gender-specific way, and that's a bad thing. That his word choice has become value-neutral, that I've used that word myself, doesn't change that.

And that's what's so bad about Don Imus, and about the aforementioned rappers. The words that they say don't matter, because they're all coming from the same place: Objectification. Sexualization. Marginalization. They're indicative of a pervasive racist and sexist thought process that is harmful to women and people of color specifically and to society in general. Ignoring them with "sticks and stones" might neutralize the words, but it doesn't do a thing about the underlying thought process. And it sends a message: It's okay to think that way. It's okay to share and cultivate that mindset in others. We'll just be over here ignoring you.

Some argue that there are more important problems within the black community to be addressed. That will be as may be, and I'm all for fixing every problem we can identify. But the inherent, societally accepted racism and sexism implicit in the "comedy" of Imus, Snoop, and so many others is a problem that affects us all. When we ignore it in the hope that it'll go away, these are the attitudes we're implicitly endorsing from Imus and others:

- That all women are sexually promiscuous
- That a black woman with a "natural" hairstyle is inferior to someone with "white" hair
- That black men can be disregarded as children and/or servants
- That a woman in a position of authority is, by definition, ill-tempered, stubborn, and uncooperative
- That black women are good for nothing more than minimum-wage domestic work
- That a black man can only get a good job through affirmative action
- That women are only looking for rich men to take care of them
- That women are only good for sex
- That all Jewish people are greedy and unprincipled
- That a woman's only value lies in her physical appearance
- Etc., etc.

We definitely do need to send the "sticks and stones" message to the young women Don Imus insulted, and other women who end up on the business end of similar slurs. They should know, and probably do know, that the opinion of some creepy old cowboy-hatted radio punk (whose hair is no showpiece himself) has no bearing on their actual value as people. Just as my elementary-school tormentors' opinion of my eyebrows has neither scarred nor shaped me, those young women will probably be able to shrug this off.

But we also need to send a message to Don Imus, to Bernard McGuirk, to Diddy (or whatever the hell he's calling himself now), to R. Kelly, and to everyone else who shares their opinions on the matter that not only are overt racism and sexism not okay, racist and sexist thought are not okay. Don Imus is a putz not just for what he said but for the fact that he thought it in the first place (and has, obviously, thought it a great many times before). The consequences of his actions have to be a message to him, and to everyone who listens to him, that thinking that way is not okay, and that if you do still think that way, you'd damn well better be smart enough to keep it to yourself. It has to stop within the brain, before it progresses from racist and sexist thought to racist and sexist words and, ultimately, actions. Anyone who shares the sentiments of an Imus or a Kelly and feels encouraged by their boldness in expressing them has to hear the message that it is not, in fact, okay.

It's true that the words we say are frequently incidental, and if words were the only problem, we'd be fine. But the thoughts behind the words have destructive power. And letting the power behind racism and sexism go unquestioned will only make it grow. It has to be addressed consistently, every time it's expressed, because that's where the actual sticks and stones start.

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