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The Imus Affair and the Erosion of Freedom of Speech

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by Izzy Kalman (May 2007)I spent a lot of time writing my long article about the Imus affair, and have also read everything about it that I came across. A couple of days ago, I encountered the single most sensible, mature, and genuinely American response to the Imus affair I have read anywhere. The following letter to the editor of Newsweek magazine says just about everything I have to say but does so in a few concise sentences:

“Can anybody honestly tell me how removing Imus from the airways makes life better for African-Americans or women? When a person can lose his livelihood simply by voicing unpopular opinions or making bad jokes, then there is no such thing as free speech. When someone can utter a racist comment and affect your day, you give that person unimaginable power over you. As an African-American, I live for the day when comments like these are largely ignored by my community. We as a people has much bigger fish to fry.” – Martin Smith, Frederich, MD

Kudos to Mr. Smith. I have presented seminars in Frederich, Maryland, but doubt he attended. He doesn’t need to. He can probably teach my seminar!

I wish more people appreciated the gravity of the situation in our country. While I don’t feel particularly sorry for the financial setback that Imus will incur, for I’m sure he has enough money to live out the rest of his life in tremendous luxury, the loss of his job over an unsuccessful joke represents an incredible tragedy for democracy. We are putting the last nails in the coffin of Freedom of Speech, the most fundamental of all of our rights and the cornerstone of democracy.

Modern Brainwashing

In the United States of America, as well as in many other democratic countries, we have been brainwashed into believing that just about the worst thing that a person can do is make a racially or sexually insensitive remark. Just look at the public rites of contrition that celebrities have made in recent years upon being notified that they said something racially or sexually offensive. You would have thought they had committed genocide.

This belief in group insults as the ultimate crime is not based on objective scientific reality or on a complex moral understanding, but is the result of the lobbying efforts of minority groups (including my own, the Jews). It has become something of a secular religion, indoctrinated into our children from preschool, and presented as life’s single most important moral principle. No one gets publicly crucified today like the person who slips up and reveals a racially insensitive thought. Are you developing an educational program? You had better make sure it claims to “promote diversity” or it’s not likely to get funded.

Teaching Tolerance is a publication dedicated to diversity, and an article, Beyond the Golden Rule, illustrates how diversity is revered as the ultimate moral principle. The subtitle is, “To truly teach tolerance to children, parents must promote more than the Golden Rule.” The Golden Rule is recognized by all major religions as well as by secular philosophers as the ultimate moral guideline. But with our modern wisdom, it is no longer enough. As the author, Dana William (who – don’t get me wrong – I’m sure is a very nice, intelligent person), says, “There are times when we as parents must explain things that are painful and unfair — racism, sexism, stereotypes, hate.” Then she gives us examples how she deprived her children of normal childhood pleasures because those pleasures were tainted by politically unacceptable images.

Pardon me, but if you do a good job of promoting the Golden Rule, it is not necessary to promote diversity because by its very nature it respects people’s diversity. On the other hand, by making diversity the ultimate principle, you will inevitably lead to some violations of the Golden Rule, and will be acting immorally. (For a dramatic example of diversity gone wrong, see my article, The Folly of Protecting Feelings.)

The Failure of Diversity Education

For years our society has been intensively indoctrinating us to “celebrate diversity.” How much progress have these efforts made? I was recently at a large professional convention and at the cocktail hours groups of blacks were hanging out and not one white person joined them. In high school and college cafeterias, you will still see students sitting at tables with members of their own races, with relatively little mixing. Movies and TV shows rarely show interracial couples. Despite laws against discrimination in housing, real estate agents do a remarkable job of keeping minorities, especially blacks, out of white neighborhoods, and America remains a largely racially segregated country.

Why aren’t people jumping on the diversity bandwagon and celebrating their differences? Why aren’t whites en masse inviting minority members to buy houses in their neighborhoods? Why can’t people of different political allegiances talk politics without getting mad and yelling at each other? Why do “pro-life” and “pro-choice” people treat each other like mortal enemies. Why are Shiites and Sunnis – believers in the same religion! – blowing each other up on a daily basis in Iraq? Why is Sunday the most racially segregated day of the week? Why do straights and gays need separate bars? Why do gangs always have enemy gangs instead of belonging to one big, happy, powerful gang? Why do countries put barriers to immigration? Why do kids form cliques? Why do Yankee and Mets fans hate each other?

The unpleasant truth is that humans are not saints or angels, and treating other groups as our equals does not come naturally to us. We feel more comfortable with people of our own group. Other groups seem strange of funny or dangerous to us. In fact, human beings love to have another group to hate. As Bertrand Russell so aptly said, “Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed.”

Hating has recently become a crime in our country, leaving our emotional life with a big vacuum. How are we going to satisfy our need to have a group to hate? Fortunately the twenty-first century has been blessed with a savior: BULLIES. Thank God for bullies. Now we can all be united in hatred for bullies, and since bullies come in all races and genders, we can safely enjoy hating and persecuting them without being accused of racism/sexism.

Teaching Intolerance

Our tolerance-promoting organizations have been trying so hard to teach tolerance. They teach us that it is very important to tolerate everyone, and if anyone displays any kind of intolerance, we will have no tolerance for them. Yes, you had better be tolerant or you’ll be sorry.

There is no official religion in the United States of America. However, the great majority of people in this country are Christians, and it seems to me like most Christians have a hard time understanding and accepting what Jesus taught. One of his most famous statements was, “He who is free of sin should throw the first stone.” We, like a bloodthirsty mob, set out to destroy the career of anyone who commits the crime of harboring a discriminatory thought. A sincere apology from the offender is no longer enough. They must pay with their livelihood. Who among us can claim to be innocent of this crime? I certainly can’t. How many of us would have a job today if the requirement were complete freedom from bias?

Freedom of Speech is the Solution

Today we are trying to get rid of Freedom of Speech because we believe the freedom to offend is the reason racial/sexual insults happen. We conclude the solution is to make it a crime to say things that could be insulting to anyone’s group. But freedom of speech is the solution to racial bias, as I demonstrate at my seminars. I instruct volunteers to act like bigots and insult me for my group membership. At first, I try to deny them freedom of speech. I vigorously insist they have no right to insult my group and warn them to stop. Does that get them to stop? No. They go on and on insulting me, and have a great time doing so. But they feel respect for neither my group nor myself because I look like an idiot. Then I demonstrate the power of freedom of speech. We start over and I let them know they can insult my group all they want. Before long, they stop insulting me, and they end up having more respect for both me and my group.

Unfortunately people no longer realize that freedom of speech is the solution to racial insults because no one teaches the meaning of freedom of speech anymore. Society, and especially our nation’s schools, are teaching the opposite. We are being taught that we have freedom of speech to say things that make people feel good, but it does not apply to words that can hurt people feelings, and most certainly not to words that can offend someone’s group.

But this is exactly what freedom of speech is needed for – to permit us to say things that others find offensive. No government needs to guarantee its people legal permission to say things that others like to hear. Freedom of speech exists expressly to permit us to say things that are offensive. It means, “Don’t tell me what I can’t say, and I won’t tell you what you can’t say.” Without freedom of speech, there would be no meaningful discourse because any idea of consequence will be found offensive by some people. Without freedom of speech I would not be able to give my seminars or write my newsletters because just about everything I have said or written has been met with vicious condemnation. Without freedom of speech, we would all be prisoners within our own skulls. We would have to keep our ideas locked up inside of our heads because if anyone overheard us saying anything that could offend someone, we would get punished.

The Constitutional Version of the “Sticks and Stones” Slogan

Freedom of speech is actually the Constitutional version of the “sticks and stones” slogan. It means it’s only words – you don’t get punished for words. Words don’t make people’s houses blow up and they don’t make bullets go through people’s hearts. Words have the potential of hurting people’s feelings, and freedom of speech means you don’t get punished for hurting people’s feelings. How do you know what’s going to hurt someone’s feelings. You can say something to me and I’ll get upset about it. You can say the very same thing to someone else and they will laugh about it or thank you for it. Why should you be punished for my subjective response to what you are saying? If you say something I don’t like and I get upset, I am really upsetting myself. Should you be punished because I upset myself?

Freedom of speech does not cover all speech. It only covers speech that can hurt people’s feelings, but it does not cover speech that can hurt people’s bodies or property. You are not allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater because that will make people stampede and trample each other. It does not cover threats of violence and incitement to violence. Freedom of speech only covers words that can hurt people’s feelings.

But we have it upside down today. We have made it a crime to say things that hurt people’s feelings but we let people get away with inciting violence. The Reverend Al Sharpton complained that he has received death threats (not covered by freedom of speech) because of his push to get Don Imus fired (and now New York City has to foot the bill to protect him). But why did people get so mad at Sharpton? The Reverend doesn’t realize that what he did to Imus – getting him fired over words he doesn’t like – is infinitely worse than what Imus did. Freedom of speech gives Imus the legal right to say things that are insulting, but it doesn’t permit Sharpton to destroy someone’s ability to make a living for saying words he (Sharpton) doesn’t like to hear. If it’s moral to destroy someone’s livelihood for making a lousy joke, it is no less moral to kill someone for destroying someone’s livelihood.

The Relative Moral Gravity of Insults

You are not sure about this? Then let’s do a simple thought experiment. I am going to give you a choice:

A. I am going to insult your group.

B. I’m going to get you fired from your job.

Which would you prefer? The insult, of course. It’s only words, but you need your job.

I’ll give you another choice:

A. I am going to insult your group one thousands times (assuming you can tune me out and go on with your life).

B. I’m going to get you fired from your job.

Which will you take? The insults, of course. You can tell yourself that I’m a racist/sexist crackpot, but you need your job. You have bills to pay and a family to support. So the act of getting someone fired from a job is incomparably worse than insulting their group.

By years of repetition of the diversity mantras, our citizenry has been brainwashed into believing that insulting words are intrinsically damaging. Our social scientists are preaching that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words kill” and “from physical injuries you can heal, but emotional injuries last a lifetime.” Our country’s most revered expert in childhood aggression, James Garbarino, wrote a book called, And Words Can Hurt Forever. Instead of teaching us not to get upset by words, they are teaching us that we should get incredibly upset by words.

I would like you to objectively assess the damage that words cause. To do this I will give you another thought experiment. We will assume that you are a moral person who would help people if you had the opportunity. You are being given a hundred dollars. You can use this money to save Mary from harm. Please read the situations carefully and decide for which you would be willing to give up your hundred dollars.

1. Mary is walking down a quiet street and is about to run into a rejected boyfriend who will kill her. You can give up your hundred dollars and this murder will never take place.
2. Mary is walking down a quiet street. She will run into a boyfriend she rejected a while back who will drag her into the bushes and rape her. You can give up your hundred dollars and the rape will never happen.
3. Mary’s jealous coworker will steal money from the company’s bank account and make it look like Mary did it. As a result, Mary will lose her job and no company will ever hire her to work in a position worthy of her abilities. You can give up your hundred dollars and prevent the coworker from framing Mary.
4. Mary’s friend will accidentally slam the door on Mary’s hand, requiring her to get stitches. You can give up your hundred dollars and prevent the injury.
5. Mary will open her front door and her beloved cat will run out and never return. Mary will feel heartbroken for months. You can give up your hundred dollars and the cat will return home.
6. Mary is wearing a new $100 suit and will ruin it irreparably by leaning against a freshly painted wall. You can give up your hundred dollars and her suit will be spared.
7. Mary will turn on her kitchen radio and hear a talk show host making a nasty, unjustified, racially toned insult about the basketball team she plays on. If you give up your hundred dollars, she will tune in to a different station and not hear those insulting words.

I would bet that for Situations One through Five, you would give up your hundred dollars. If you are a compassionate person, you would feel that a hundred dollars is a small price to pay to spare Mary the pain that comes from things like death, rape, destroyed career, lost pets and stitches. And for Situation Six, if you were an especially nice person, you would give up your hundred dollars to save Mary’s hundred-dollar suit.

How about Number Seven? Would you give up your hundred dollars to prevent Mary from hearing the insulting words? Not likely. You wouldn’t be so foolish as to waste one hundred dollars because you’d think, “Mary should realize this talk show host is a jerk. She shouldn’t let him upset her. If the words really bother her, she should call up the host or the show’s producer and let them know the comment was offensive.” In fact, I bet you wouldn’t even give up one dollar to spare her the “pain of the insult.” Nasty words are the ordinary kind of irritations that we all experience and have to deal with or we’d be constant nervous wrecks.

The Hypocrisy of Moralistic Media Watchdogs

What is the crime in giving voice to a racial insult? Is the crime that there is something intrinsically harmful about saying the words, making their utterer worthy of punishment? Or is the crime in the harm that it causes the listener? You would probably agree with me that the answer is the second.

Everyone who’s been listening to the media or reading the papers seems to know about the “horrendous” remark by Imus. How do you know about it? Did you listen to the Imus show? Probably not. You know about it is because of the efforts of a self-appointed morality watchdog, Media Watch, which pays people to listen to and record certain shows they don’t like in order to catch them making any racist/sexist remarks and bring it to the public’s attention. The more attention these watchdogs get for their discoveries, the more satisfied they are.

If the true concern of Media Watch is to prevent people from being hurt by racist and sexist words – because, after all, such words cause terrible harm to listeners – they should do everything in their power to prevent anyone from ever hearing Imus’s words. Media Watch should immediately have called the radio station informing them of the terrible thing that was said on the show, asking that those words be deleted from the tape so they would never be aired again, and requesting that Imus be careful about saying such things in the future. I don’t know much about Imus. He may not be a saint, but I’m sure he’s not the devil incarnate. If he were respectfully told that something he said was in poor taste and hurt some people who didn’t deserve it, does anyone doubt that he would apologize and be more thoughtful in the future?

But what does Media Watch do? Do they protect us from Imus’s words? No. They make sure everyone in the country hears them. If Imus’s words cause harm, than what Media Watch did is far worse than what Imus did. Imus only hurt the relatively small audience that happened to be listening at the time. Media Watch has hurt all the rest of us by forcing us to hear those life-destroying words.

I’ll make an analogy. Let’s say John Doe commits the crime of stabbing his wife in the abdomen. Then I take a knife and go around stabbing everyone in the country saying, “Do you know what a terrible thing John Doe did? He took this knife and stuck it in his wife’s belly, like this!” It’s no longer John Doe doing the stabbing – it’s me!

So why does Media Watch (and other social morality watchdogs – I’m not picking only on this group) do it? Because to them, the true crime is not the hurting of people, but the utterance of words that they deem unacceptable to the religion of Diversity. Their goal is to impose their beliefs about what is appropriate for everyone to hear and to humiliate anyone who says anything they don’t approve of. On their website they declare that they are not in favor of censorship but of education.  It’s a great education they are giving us: If you don’t like what someone says, make their lives miserable!

And does anyone actually believe that the folk at Media Watch were upset by Imus’s words? They must have been dancing in glee. It makes all their days monitoring our smut-filled airways worthwhile when they can bag a celebrity like Imus. It’s juicy catches like this that bring the glory and the donations.

Similarly, does anyone think the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were upset by Imus’s remarks? They live for events like these. They haven’t been in the national spotlight for months (years?) and now everyone gets to be reminded of their existence. If they were truly looking to protect their people, they would be teaching them not to get upset by racial insults instead of treating insults like the crimes of the century. What really gets their juices flowing is the opportunity to publicly destroy anyone they consider a racist.

Promoting Resilience or Vulnerability?

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP – my own primary professional association) has announced that the theme of next year’s National Convention will be RESILIENCE. If you read the NASP newspaper, you have probably noticed that the number one social goal of school psychologists is to prevent anyone from saying anything that can hurt a child’s feelings. How does NASP expect kids to develop resilience when it treats them as brittle objects that can be shattered by mere words? If kids aren’t even supposed to survive the experience of hearing insults, how do we expect them to handle objective painful events like hurricanes, earthquakes, and even school failure? We do our darndest to raise emotional marshmallows, then we want to figure out how to promote resilience!

It’s about time we went back to teaching Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Speech is the solution to getting upset by insults; it is the Constitutional version of the original “sticks and stones” slogan and the main source of our country’s resilience. How wonderful to live in a country in which everyone is allowed to say what they want – as long as it doesn’t harm anyone’s physical or financial well-being – without fear of punishment. Our Founding Fathers were brilliant psychologists, and our American social scientists should stop trying to deprive us of what they so wisely gave us.

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