Friday, April 13, 2007

The trouble with words

Two stories that involve college team sports have been in the news this week. Both have caused such a stir that they’ve escaped the confines of the sports page to become above-the-fold front page stories. Of course, they are the Don Imus/Rutgers women’s basketball team story and the Mike Nifong/Duke lacrosse players story.

As anyone who’s been on the planet knows, radio personality Don Imus has been in the spotlight all week trying to apologize hard enough to put out the fire he started by calling the Rutgers team “nappy-headed hos.” Yesterday, in spite of Imus’ efforts at damage control CBS Radio fired him.

That Imus had been fired doesn’t bother me a bit. I don’t listen to Imus. In fact, talk radio -- whether it’s politics or sports -- gives me a headache, so I don’t listen to any of it. The closest I get is to listen to ’Fresh Air” on NPR. So, blather kings Jim Rome, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh could get fired tomorrow and I wouldn’t care about them either.

The only reason for me to comment on the Imus brouhaha is to say this -- I don’t think anyone is better off for what has happened to Imus, who is essentially a topical comedian. I don’t believe the cause of reducing so-called “hate crimes” has been served. Nor do I think a single bigot has seen the light and been reformed by the spectacle of Imus’ fall from his syndicated lofty perch.

For some folks it’s always fun to see the mighty fall. So, that crowd has been entertained. Imus’ crack was so off-the-wall and lowbrow it made some people mad. I can certainly understand that, but he was trying to be funny. Just as Chris Rock, Bill Maher, and any number of other comedians say things to be funny that make some people angry.

Are such comedians sometimes too mean, so mean that it keeps the joke from being funny?

Yes, but so what. The last thing this country needs is a law against jokes that don’t work.

Basically, jokes all have fall guys. We’re either laughing at the other guy, or at ourselves. Imus’ remark about those young female athletes was mean-spirited. But in a culture that tolerates gangster rap and outrageous violence in primetime television programs, how egregious was Imus’ decent into racist/misogynist lingo?

Not very.

We live in a cynical time in which lots of people write and say “the n-word,” as if they have shown some deference to the historically trampled-upon dignity of black citizens by not using the attention-getting word that code represents.

Well, I don’t happen to believe they have, so that prissy, politically correct way of using a word that seems to be forbidden to some people, but not others, is of no use to me. It’s not in my repertoire.

Words are symbols of thoughts. And, they can only be understood in the context and manner in which they are used. Usually, it’s not so much what you say, as it is when you say it, where you say it, and how you say it.

Tone of voice can mean much more than dictionary definitions. Thus, the old saw -- “you better smile when you say that.”

Moving on to the ill-chosen words of another man, when North Carolina prosecutor Mike Nifong called the Duke lacrosse players “a bunch of hooligans,” he was speaking as a public official. Nifong apparently had nothing more to go on than the wacky ramblings of the woman who claimed to be the victim, and his own bad hunch, when he decided to charge the lacrosse players with rape. There was no evidence.

Now we know there was no case at all.

Then to make matters worse Nifong recklessly characterized young men who were still legally presumed to be innocent as perhaps being the sort who could easily rape an exotic dancer.

Now Nifong is being called “a rogue prosecutor,” and for good reason. His “hooligans” was said in a way, in a time and in a place that injured people. Since he deliberately did that injury, firing him is not enough.

Nifong may lose his license to practice law. He will probably be sued. Good. Moreover, I think there ought to be a law against what he did. He should do time for what he did to injure the lacrosse players, their families and Duke University.

Rogue prosecutors are not as rare as they should be. And, one reason for that is they usually only get slapped on the wrist when they get caught.

When elected or appointed officials say something that offends/injures innocent citizens, they should be called upon to account for themselves. In this age of focusing on forced apologies that can get silly, but the standard for what public officials say on the record should be high. Sometimes they should be fired; sometimes they should go to jail.

On the other hand, if we want to stop comedians from occasionally being mean in their attempts at humor, we’re going against human nature.

Furthermore, the marketplace of ideas will take care of comedians who aren’t funny enough to justify their meanness. The recent flap over Michael “Cosmo Kramer” Richards’ much-publicized racist tirade in a nightclub, and his series of awkward/lame apologies is an example of that. He’s not funny, anymore, and he’s on his way to the dustbin.

You can’t take certain words away from writers. Outlawing certain topics will never work. You can’t stop artists from using certain colors, or musicians from playing certain notes. Because, in truth, it’s not the words, or the colors, or the notes that matter. It’s when, where and how they are used.


Kevin said...

"Well, the telling of jokes is an art of its own, and it always rises from some emotional threat. The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful."
Kurt Vonnegut, Interview,
US novelist (1922-2007)

F.T. Rea said...


Apt and timely.