Saturday, April 14, 2007

Four Imus Fallacies

Not to worry ... I'm not going to turn this blog into a never-ending series of posts about Imus, no longer in the morning or at present anyplace in the media. But I thought I'd offer one concluding contribution, and then back to my regularly scheduled diatribes, barring something new about Imus ...

I've seen a lot of faulty analogies bandied around the media regarding Imus, his insult of the Rutgers women's basketball team, and his firing. I'll discuss (and puncture) four of them here:

1. Why are people offended by Imus, but not by the same kind of language used in rap and hip-hop records and culture?

Poor analogy. Rap and hip-hop make general statements (bad, good, insulting, whatever) about general classes of people in society. Imus insulted real individuals - in fact, women who were not celebrities, but players on a college basketball team. General insults, not specifically directed at you, can be easily ignored. An attack on a real individual cannot - certainly not by that person.
Here is an example: I'm a college professor. If someone says, "college professors are schmucks," I can laugh that off. If someone says, "you, Professor Levinson, are a schmuck," I'd still laugh, but would probably want to respond to that.

Bottom line: There's a world of difference between a general insult and a targeted insult. Rap is social commentary, and does not need to be restrained. What Imus said was personally damaging, and has no place in our media or our culture.

2. Imus apologized to the Rutgers women; why don't the Revs Sharpton and Jackson apologize to the Duke lacrosse players, wrongly accused of rape?

Also a poor analogy. Although Sharpton and Jackson do owe the lacrosse players an apology, the two situations are not comparable. Sharpton and Jackson were commenting on an alleged crime. What crime or anything of negative note occurred with the women's basketball team at Rutgers, to warrant Imus's comment? None. In fact, they were in the news because of a positive accomplishment, doing well on the basketball courts. Imus's comment was thus worse than insulting: he attacked people who should have been praised and toasted, not insulted, for their accomplishments.

3. Why don't we go after other media celebrities who traffic in insult - Ann Coulter, Rosie O'Donnell, take your pick - now that Imus has been held to account?

See my response to #1 above: Imus's insults were in a class by themselves. Coulter goes after people who are already in the news about some political or social matter. Her statements are often reprehensible, but they are directed against people who choose to enter the public arena. (Her attack on the widows of 911 was about the worst - the widows, obviously and tragically, did not choose to be widows. But they did decide, bravely, to enter the public arena on post-911 issues). In contrast, Imus went after people who had not entered any arena except the basketball court. Meanwhile, O'Donnell's language is also either directed against other celebrities, or to general classes of people (her remark about the Chinese, for example).

To be clear: None of this excuses the language and behavior of Coulter and O'Donnell - but they are not in the same league of blindsiding, personally-directed insult as what Imus said.

4. If you believe in freedom of speech and the First Amendment, how can you be happy about Imus taken off the air?

Easy: Imus's speech was not restrained, restricted, or fined by the FCC or any part of government. In fact, he is still free to say whatever he likes - that is indeed his right, under the First Amendment to our Constitution.
What he does not have a right to do is say whatever he pleases and be paid millions of dollars to say it, or be given access to a microphone that will broadcast his words to millions of people.

The distinction is crucial. The First Amendment receives an almost daily beating by the FCC, and it is important to focus on that and oppose it. Bringing Imus into the picture only confuses the issue.

In sum: Our culture and our media do not really need to change. Imus needed to go.

Useful links:

Listen to my 20-minute podcast about Imus at Light On Light Through

Memo to Michelle Malkin re: Imus and rap

Day After Imus: What Doesn't Need to Be Done

Following comments are from my original posting on on 14 April 2007. Feel free to post any new comments right here.


Here is an example: I'm a college professor. If someone says, "college professors are schmucks," I can laugh that off. If someone says, "you, Professor Levinson, are a schmuck," I'd still laugh, but would probably want to respond to that.
Are you saying it's more acceptable to insult a wide range of people than a very specific target?
By that logic, people should dismiss something like a racial slur, because it encompasses a large group of people and not a direct target. It then follows by that logic that Imus' statement would've been more acceptable if he had insulted ALL blacks, for example, instead of singling out the basketball players he insulted, because after all, he'd be insulting a group with a sweeping generalization and not a target specific insult. Seems a little ridiculous, does it not?
Posted by: doctornine at April 14, 2007 08:53 PM
Read what I wrote, doctornine.

Does it say anything about insults to general classes of people being "more acceptable"?
In fact, I'm not talking about "acceptability" - what I'm talking about is personal hurt.
And, yes, I stand by my point that an insult directed against a real, specific individual or group of real, identified individuals is much more hurtful, and less easily ignored, than an insult against a general group.
Posted by: Paul Levinson at April 14, 2007 10:35 PM

Thank you for your response Paul. I appreciate it.
Posted by: doctornine at April 14, 2007 10:40 PM

Although Imus should be disciplined for his actions, it bothers me when his comments are deemed racist, when in fact, I believe that they were not. He made a positive comment about the Tennessee women's basketball team just moments before his comment about the Rutgers girls, and I do not believe that this country will make any progress if people have to sit and live in a state of paranoia just in case they make a statement that is considered non-politically correct. I honestly thought that you Professor Levinson, would be much more forgiving for a mistake made by someone who has, over the years, provided such a good commentary and insight into political life as Dom Imus has. Whereas he did make a mistake, isn't it a staple of the university you work for, to forgive?
Posted by: Johnny D at April 15, 2007 02:02 AM

Johnny D - thanks for the comment.
First, let me say that although I'm a professor at Fordham University, I'm in no sense speaking for the university when I comment on public events - either here, or on television and radio, etc.
A fundamental principle of academic life, which Fordham endorses and respects, is that professors speak and write for themselves, presenting their own views on matters of public import.
As for Imus, it's not a question of forgiving.
It's a question of whether CBS and MSNBC wanted to continue to give him the salary and access to their microphones. This a free society, which means corporations have every right to fire employees who, in the corporation's view, are not acting in the corporate interest. That's part of the deal you accept when you take that big salary.
Is Imus a racist? I don't really know - I can't look into his soul.
But, clearly, his statement was racist and sexist.
Posted by: Paul Levinson at April 15, 2007 10:47 AM

You, Professor Levinson, are a schmuck.
Well, you kinda asked for that.
To expand: Your response to alleged fallacy #2 is wrong in at least two respects. It is not more acceptable to make extravagant statements about people accused of a crime than it is to make them about people not so accused; it is worse, because it does palpable harm to them and their case at a time when the law deems them to be still innocent. Additionally, your statement that they were commenting on an alleged crime is not strictly true; many of their statements ventured into personal slurs on the accused themselves.
Posted by: Chuck Hardin at April 15, 2007 07:15 PM

Thanks Paul, I think the personal attack vs. public you mention is important. However, I think the racial/sexist content of his message must be kept in context. When I watch the clip, it seems clear to me that it is in jest, it is an exaggeration. This may sound stupid, but I believe that because he thought he could tell such a joke, this is actually indicative of how far we have come.
Perhaps Imus thought that because these are frequently used terms they would be appropriate for his crowd, that his crowd would understand the absurdity of such a statement. Deriving that a woman is a ho from basketball footage is absurd. And frankly I didn't even realize 'nappy' was a racist term, I thought it simply meant mussy, or unkempt. I do think that these words, especially in this context, do not carry the same meaning that they might of say 60 years ago. (for example, I think it is great that every other word in rap songs is 'nigga'. I don't think you can kill hurtful words, but you can redefine them which is much more effective.)
I do not think this was as controversial as everyone would like it to be. That it was a personal attack, that is why Imus should apologize /be fired. This matter did not warrant this sort of attention, and I doubt it would have got too far if Sharpton and Jackson hadn't involved themselves. There are very real issues that do harm blacks in America, and I think it is unfortunate that this is what Sharpton and Jackson choose to attack.
Posted by: tobydog at April 15, 2007 10:47 PM

Do you think that the corporations who pulled their advertisements, or even MSBNC and CBS themselves, took the swift action that they did because they were reading the winds of the coming political environment? I mean, the two front runners for the Democratic nominee for president, Clinton and Obama, certainly weighed in on the controversy in public comments.
Imus regularly called Hillary Clinton "Satan" among other less-than-flattering names.
Posted by: John Furie Zacharias at April 15, 2007 10:59 PM

Chuck - thanks - I was hoping some reader would rise (sink) to the bait ... and you did! Congratulations! :)
Meanwhile, as to your points about Sharpton and Jackson:
So you seriously think that someone (Imus) who blindsides people for no reason whatsoever is better than someone (Sharpton or Jackson) who comments on people accused (wrongly, it turns out) of a serious crime?
In this country, unlike England, we permit and even encourage discussion of crimes while they are under investigation. Yes, it can do damage to the wrongly accused. But it also can help the wrongly accused, by calling attention to poor prosecutor performance.
Which is just what it did in the Duke case.
Indeed, whatever the motives of Sharpton and Jackson, their comments - along with many others - kept the media focused on Duke, which eventually led to the charges being dropped, the lame Prosecutor resigning, etc.
So, actually, I think Sharpton and Jackson may have done some good, there - again, unlike Imus.
Posted by: Paul Levinson at April 16, 2007 01:35 AM

tobydog - but surely you don't think that most women would enjoy being called a "ho'", do you?
John: I think MSNBC and CBS moved almost 100% because sponsors were dropping Imus. That's almost all the suits in charge care about.
Posted by: Paul Levinson at April 16, 2007 01:38 AM

Always happy to oblige, son.
Yeah, I do think that it's worse to attack someone who is already beleaguered, who is already under attack by a well-funded and powerful opponent, than it is to attack someone who's on top of their game and totally not expecting it. In the first case, you're piling on and making things worse. In the second, you're easily dismissed by the person, who can just shake their head and wonder if you've really stopped drinking.
Cut the debate-club bullshit and answer honestly: Do you really think that any athlete who's tough enough to master college basketball is going to be affected much by the unjustified rantings of some dried-up radio loudmouth? They won. He's pissed. Waaaah.
As for your disingenuous nonsense about Jackson and Sharpton calling attention to the situation...why would you put an argument like that in your mouth? I wouldn't pick it up with my hands. The only thing their rantings attracted was a lynch mob of idiots. It was their opposition who called attention to the actual injustices of the situation. If you were an honest man, you'd thank them.
Posted by: Chuck Hardin at April 16, 2007 07:45 PM

Chuck - I'm sorry if you think what I've been saying is "bullshit debate" - because I stand by every single word I've written about this.
And to answer your question: I rather doubt that you have much if any real experience with college people at this age and in this situation or similar situations.
I have - as a parent, and much more often (of course) as a college professor, and even more so as a Chair of a Department, where I get to see students who need advice on all kind of things.
And you know what? If anything, being on a successful team makes many people even more vulnerable, because, having succeeded in one area, they feel a lot of pressure to succeed in other areas.
Posted by: Paul Levinson at April 16, 2007 08:02 PM

If being on a successful athletic team is stressful, do you know what is certainly worse? Being on a successful athletic team and prosecuted for a felony you didn't commit, Paul, that's what. And having half-witted slavering ghouls pile on to you, convict you in the court of public opinion, because your alleged guilt conforms to their nasty political prejudices...that'd be nigh-intolerable.
I guess the worst thing of all would be to have the nation's newspaper of record join in the pile-on, printing ignorant tripe and rancid speculation as fact...and the faculty of your university nod their bespectacled heads and cry "Aw-men". Yeah, by God, that'd be a blow, wouldn't it?
I wish I didn't believe your protestations of sincerity. I could almost tolerate your bad arguments when I thought they were mere casuistry. If the bad reasoning you've displayed here is an example of your real, sincere thought process, I believe you don't deserve your position at Fordham. A professor simply shouldn't be this poor a thinker.
Posted by: Chuck Hardin at April 17, 2007 04:10 AM
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