Post-Imus, Free Speech Doesn't Mean Free Speech

From Todd Boyd, ESPN’s Page 2:

Now that disgraced radio talk-show host Don Imus has been booted, can we finally get down to some “real talk” about the multiple issues embedded in this racial theater? There is a lot to sort through here, but after a week of debate centered around “nappy-headed hos,” half-assed apologies, cries of censorship, and a curmudgeonly shock jock’s lame attempt at being funny, many pundits have moved beyond the core issue and now are talking about the perceived double standard they feel exists between what Imus said and what often comes from the mouths of rappers.

Yet Imus and hip-hop really don’t have much in common. Imus was host of a radio show that focused on the real news of the day, while hip-hop is a fictionalized form of cultural expression. Imus is real, featuring real guests and humor based on real topics. However loudly hip-hop might claim to be real, it is not real; it is a form of representation. This is why so few rappers use the names on their birth certificates when performing. Rappers are in essence characters performing a fictional life. Though the culture is rooted in the notion and style of authenticity, it is decidedly fictional. If not, the cops could arrest every rapper who talks about selling drugs or killing someone in his or her lyrics. So we should be judging hip-hop the same way we judge a novel, a movie, or a television show, and to do so means we have to afford hip-hop the same latitude we afford any other form of artistic expression.

—Which, presumably, should include comedy, lest Chris Rock or a host of black comedians be forced to apologize for their jokes about whites and Asians, for example.

Imus’ schtick was lame and unwisely aimed. But he was nevertheless referencing the lexicon of rap culture, which has become part of the general cultural lexicon (a point Boyd himself makes unwittingly later in the piece) in his revolting attempt at “humor.” Which, using Mr Boyd’s criteria, would mean we shouldn’t be judging Imus based on the content of his art simply because it is “art” that is aired in a different context and using a different medium.

I mean, are we really now prepared to argue that what is in Imus’ heart is determined by what name he chooses? That is, would what he said be more acceptable—a form of indexical “representation” of “cultural expression”—had he uttered it as, say, “Donny I-Money?” Because as I recall, many feminists weren’t too keen on accepting such an argument when the purveyor of “cultural expression” in question was Andrew Dice Clay—who very clearly was a persona, developed by Brooklyn Jew named Andrew Silverstein.

Boyd is, to a large extent, correct in his conclusion: we should be judging hip-hop the same way we judge other forms of art, and I believe its content—provided it doesn’t provide proximate cause for inciting violence (which is so difficult to prove as to make it virtually useless as an argument)—should be protected.

But where he goes astray is in trying to draw a distinction to suit his political purposes. Because like it or not, the “art” of comedians and humorists, among whose number Imus has always been counted, deserves the same kind of speech protections, given that it, too, can be described as a form “representation,” a meta-commentary on society filtered through the subject position comedians and humorists assume in order to make their pointed remarks.

Imus, in short, was doing a comedy bit. The bit may or may not have exposed his deep-seated racism; but if we are to argue that hip-hop artists deserve a pass because they are engaging in a form of art that mirrors our culture back to us, we must provide the same defense for people like Imus.

Which is not to say that MSNBC shouldn’t have fired him—they have every right to do so in order to stave off a PR disaster; but for Barack Obama or Condi Rice to come out for his firing is dangerous and, given that they are tied to government, worrisome to the First Amendment.

That we seem to be mainstreaming this idea that free speech, properly understood, is somehow protected by a corresponding cleansing from civilized discourse of “offensive” speech, runs directly against the intent of the First Amendment.

Not only that, but it turns tolerance into a speech code—when what tolerance should be doing is preventing speech codes by insisting that, for speech to be truly free, we must be able to tolerate even that speech that most offends us.

Sadly, we are living in Orwell’s world—where even our politicians are willing to read the Constitution through the cynical eyes of political correctness.

(h/t John)

Cross-posted at Protein Wisdom.