Free Speech Includes Offensive Jokes!

Big Tent Democrat rightly excoriates Frank Rich for hypocrisy in denouncing Don Imus only after he could no longer benefit from using his show for self-promotion. His conclusion, however, is troubling:

And to call this a free speech issue is a joke. We’re supposed to worry about the freedom to tell racist and sexist jokes?

Hell yes.

Indeed, if “free speech” means anything, it must protect the expression of unpopular ideas.

Now, obviously, that doesn’t mean that others don’t have the free speech right to condemn racist and sexist jokes. Or even that advertisers and employers don’t have the right to not associate themselves with those who tell them.

It is, however, a slippery slope toward tyranny of the majority. Alexis de Tocqueville warned in his 1835 classic Democracy in America:

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe’, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.

[…]

The master no longer says: “You shall think as I do or you shall die”; but he says: “You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.”

In his 1859 essay “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill issued a similar warning:

Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.

The value of an old white man being able to refer to black women he finds unattractive as “nappy headed hos” over the airwaves is minimal at best. Still, where do we draw the line? Surely, if Don Imus must go, Michael Savage must. And what of Rush Limbaugh? Bill Maher? Keith Olbermann? They all repeatedly say outrageous things on the air. What of “South Park”?

Many of us have noted the use of similar language in rap lyrics and stand-up routines. The point is not that they, too, are offensive and must be regulated. Just the opposite.

Last night, my wife and I watched a Carlos Mencia DVD and the language was frequently vulgar and, certainly, racial. As the liner notes say, “Carlos Mencia covers taboo topics including ethnic stereotypes, race relations, immigration, war, patriotism, capitalism and family with brutal honesty and unrelenting provocativeness. Mencia represents the internal voice inside us and demands we admit to thinking what he says out loud.”

Because he’s a “beaner” (his word), he’s given wider leeway than a white man, which is understandable if ultimately misguided. Yet, while his primary intention is to entertain–that’s how he makes his living, after all–it was unabashedly social and political commentary as well. Ultimately, I would argue, his provocative language is a more effective way of communicating that message to a wide audience than a politically correct op-ed in the New York Times.

Like Mencia, Imus was using humor to express ideas that many people have but are afraid to verbalize. Imus’ humor fell flat, though, because the joke was so incongruous with reality and was aimed at innocents. But, surely, even unfunny jokes should be permissible.

UPDATE: I’ve been mulling this over a bit and it occurs to me that I should contrast my views here with those on two comparable recent controversies: The Dixie Chicks “I’m ashamed to be an American” “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas” flap and Ann Coulter’s referring to John Edwards as a “faggot” at CPAC.

In important ways, the Dixie Chicks are a very different case. Most significantly, their careers were built on singing largely non-controversial pop-country songs. When they shifted into political commentary, they quite naturally changed their relationship with their fans and the country music establishment. Furthermore, their record label did not fire them. Instead, a lot of people quit buying their records and radio stations started receiving fewer requests to hear their songs.

If Don Imus’ listeners had decided that this latest incident was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and quit listening, I would have no problem with it. Similarly, if the ratings dropped to the point where keeping the show on the air was no longer economically justified, I wouldn’t be writing this. Instead, however, CBS and MSNBC bowed to a swarm of protests and the clammorings of Al Sharpton and company. That strikes me as fundamentally different.

The Ann Coulter case is much more similar. Both she and Imus built careers on outrageous commentary. After the Edwards incident, I joined others in calling for CPAC to stop inviting her to speak at future conferences, since having her at the premier conservative gathering legitimated her as a major voice of the movement. I did not call for her syndicate or anyone else to stop publishing her column, on the networks to stop inviting her on to express her views, or otherwise censuring her. I merely called on organizations which claim to speak for me to make it clear that Coulter did not.

What I would have preferred happen as a result of the Imus remarks is a discussion about racial and gender stereotypes–which did happen–and a better understanding of how the context of the usage of words expressing them matters. Far better than sending the message that the use of phrases like “nappy headed hos” will get you into trouble would be an understanding of why those words are so offensive in most contexts but perfectly acceptable in others.

It would be desirable to see a diminished use of that sort of language, not because uttering it will result in bad consequences for those who dare express themselves in that way because of increased social awareness. That, rather than mob rule, is the way to a more civil society.

UPDATE: The original update above misquoted the Dixie Chicks.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t know, James. There’s a difference between using the powers of government to abridge speech and using social stigma and economic sanction. The de Tocqueville quote above expresses it perfectly: if anyone proposes that people should be jailed or executed when they say despicable things, I would oppose it. But if, on the other hand, they say that people should be shunned and/or lose their jobs when they say despicable things, it fits into a somewhat different category.

    I think that tolerance of even despicable views a la Voltaire is preferable and praiseworthy; unfortunately we’re not all perfect liberals.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, although a lot of attention has been focussed on the “ho” part of the comment I think it was the “nappy-headed” part that got Imus in trouble. The message here is clear: if you mess with women’s hair, you’re on your own.

    1
  3. James Joyner says:

    somewhat different category

    No doubt. I have no problem, for example, with people deciding not to buy Dixie Chicks CDs once they started speaking their minds on politics and alienating their fan base. But that’s a different thing, I think, than saying that certain words or ideas are so offensive that they must not be given voice and that people should be condemned for even associating with people who say them.

    Ultimately, de Tocqueville and Mill would argue, tyranny is tyranny regardless of whether it’s a despot or society that imposes it. Indeed, de Tocqueville seems to suggest that the latter is actually more invidious, since it’s inescapable.

  4. Bithead says:

    And so I’m sitting here listening to War’s “Nappy Head” (Theme from Ghetto man)” on the MP3… and I come up on this post. Interesting timing.

    A couple random thoughts:

    So where was all of this when Ann Coulter was getting clobbered by the left, just a short time ago?

    And I wonder, where Al Sharpton’s radio show is being run… on what stations? I wonder if we couldn’t call the trash HE talks ‘offensive’, and have HIM shut down. I certainly find it so.

    Schiller’s point is well taken, where he draws a line between government intervention, and economic intervention.

    But I would point out, Sharpton’s reliance on the idea that the electromagnetic spectrum is “public property”. So heavy is his reliance on that one idea, that he uses it where it doesn’t even apply; MSNBC is a cable channel, after all. Think, now;

    Why on earth would somebody lean so heavily on that, if the goal wasn’t wasn’t eventual government intervention, if the other methods of limiting speech didn’t work?

    In the end, What we are watching is the result of more of the same kind of nonsense that Sharpton and his ilk have been promoting for the last couple of decades; the culture of victimhood.

  5. Excellent post, James. I especially love the Ann Coulter ad that appears when I view the comments! 🙂

  6. James Joyner says:

    I especially love the Ann Coulter ad that appears when I view the comments! 🙂

    Heh. Gotta love contextual advertising.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    See also Kinky Friedman’s op-ed on Imus this morning.

  8. Bithead says:

    James;

    Your response to my point a regards Coulter, noted.

    Let me tell you something, James… in all candor…YOU personally may not have called for “for her syndicate or anyone else to stop publishing her column, on the networks to stop inviting her on to express her views, or otherwise censuring her.”… but a goodly number of left certainly were…. and … what do you know…. almost to a man, they were the same in-DUH-viduals who were screaming for Imus’ ouster.

    I guarantee you that if Coulter had a regular talk show, they’d be screaming for her to be shut down as well.

    And, you know what? The difference between the two situations is that Imus, who has been snuggling up to the left for years now, never expected the attacks against him to be quite as vicious as they turned out to be. How could they do that, he reasoned, since I’ve been busy carrying their water for for the last decade or more?
    Coulter, on the other hand, knew darned well how vicious it could be out there, and was prepared to defend herself the second she opened her mouth. She understands very well indeed that such attacks from the left are simply part of the deal.

    the data I’m seeing from the polsters indicates that the vast majority… something like 90%… don’t want Imus fired. So, what are the networks reacting to?

    The same old game of extortion that Sharpton and Jackson have been playing for years. Our freedom of speech is being ripped up by these extortionists.

  9. Triumph says:

    Instead, however, CBS and MSNBC bowed to a swarm of protests and the clammorings of Al Sharpton and company. That strikes me as fundamentally different.

    This is a mischaracterization of what happened.
    For both networks the main issue was that the ADVERTISERS expressed problems with the show–especially Proctor and Gamble and Staples.

    Al Sharpton expresses his disapproval at all sorts of things, but has very LITTLE POWER. Companies normally ignore his protests. However, when your advertisers protest, you can’t afford to igore them.

    Instead of blaming Sharpton, blame Proctor and Gamble. They are thoroughly infiltrated with such leftists as Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, CEO A.G. Lafley who gave the RNC 10,000 during the last presidential election and whose family gave money to both Bush and Republican stalwart Bob Portman (now Bush’s Budget Director).

    The board of P&G also includes liberals like the CEO of Boeing, the CEO of Verizon Wireless and the CEO of Delta Airlines. In fact, the Procter and Gamble PAC gave a quarter of a million dollars to Republican candidates last year.

    The second factor that led to the two networks dropping Imus were internal pressures from their own employees. The Wall Street Journal reported on internal meetings at MSNBC and CBS. Especially at MSNBC, many of Imus’ fellow workers were uncomfortable with his behavior. Management, recognizing that their top corporate talent didn’t want to be associated with Imus, made the decision to drop him.

    To think that Sharpton has enough power to push around Viacom and General Electric–two of the largest media companies in the world–is absurd.

    James shows here a typical line of “reasoning” amongst conservatives: presenting a racist such as Imus as the “victim” of a largely inconsequential person of color while at the same time willfully ignoring the ACTUAL points of influence and power that led to Imus’ sacking.

  10. NoZe says:

    As I understand it, the Dixie Chicks’ album sales didn’t fall significantly…I don’t know about listener requests, since radio station playlists are increasingly programmed by corporate offices, not determined by requests. Radio stations simply quit playing them, presumably out of concern that their listeners wouldn’t want to hear them.

    I think their sales have been pretty good lately, haven’t they?

  11. Tano says:

    The Dixie Chicks said that they were ashamed that George Bush is from Texas. They did not say they were ashamed to be Americans.

    Thats a pretty gross mischaracterization James.

  12. Triumph says:

    The Dixie Chicks said that they were ashamed that George Bush is from Texas. They did not say they were ashamed to be Americans.

    Thats a pretty gross mischaracterization James.

    Accuracy is hard to reconcile with talking points sometimes.

  13. P. G. says:

    Bloggers are getting increasingly sued for their expressions online. Any thoughts on that?

  14. Bithead says:

    Instead, however, CBS and MSNBC bowed to a swarm of protests and the clammorings of Al Sharpton and company. That strikes me as fundamentally different.

    This is a mischaracterization of what happened.
    For both networks the main issue was that the ADVERTISERS expressed problems with the show–especially Proctor and Gamble and Staples.

    Quite so. However, your statement:

    To think that Sharpton has enough power to push around Viacom and General Electric–two of the largest media companies in the world–is absurd.

    … ignores the fact that this is exactly what Jackson and Sharpton ahve been doing for decades, now. IN this case, it works like this…(AS I told Beck the other night)…

    Since when have leftists ever needed a majority to hold sway in society?
    OTOH, look at this from the perspective of the owners; Imus has NEVER drawn huge ratings, even in the Musicradio/W*N*bc days, in comparison to the amounts of money invested. The talk show has been more expensive yet. The issue from the perspective of the networks was is and always shall be, the bottom line.

    The people that reacted to what really wasn’t there was the ADVERTISERS. Advertisers will be more prone to reacting so to a small vocal minority. (No pun intended).

    Remember, too, that the Jacksons and the Sharptons of the world have a rather long track record of shaking down major corporations…. advertisers.. to get their way… including their massive funding. I guarantee you that’s what drove all this.

    Mind you, I’m not overly happy about it; I can think of an awful lot of reasons to be blowing him out the door. But because I was being blackmailed (No pun intended) by Jackson and Sharpton, and their ilk, would not be first on my list.

    As to why the gruesome twosome would be flexing their muscles just now; I wonder how many people it’s occurred to, that we’re on the cusp of a presidential election season? I suspect and suppose that now that the baby has a cookie, and a pat on the head, he’s now going to want some milk, too.

  15. Triumph says:

    .. ignores the fact that this is exactly what Jackson and Sharpton ahve been doing for decades, now.

    Ok, Bithead, Im not sure where that quote is from, but it supports my point: it was due to advertiser pressure that Viacom and GE sacked Imus.

    Sharpton and Jackson are opportunists, clearly. However, they are usually unsuccessful. Remember when they tried to take up the case of Michael Jackson a couple of years ago, saying Sony was being racist for not promoting the album enough? Well, Sony, basically told them to f*cK off and nothing came of it.

    Sharpton and Jackson have minimal organization and little constituency. Hell, Jackson’s “protest” in his hometown of Chicago on Monday only drew 50 people!

    Procter and Gamble is not afraid of 50 people.

  16. Stormy70 says:

    I felt the whole Imus thing was red on red, so I am not really invested in it.
    The Dixie Chicks went from selling out stadiums and every album selling over 10 million copies, until they pissed of their original fans. Compared to their previous albums, their current album was not even in the ballpark. They had to rework their tour because of low ticket sales in some locales. The market decides in these cases. Imus lost his advertisers, so he was fired. If he can still make someone money, they will hire him.

  17. John Burgess says:

    Legion said:

    James shows here a typical line of “reasoning” amongst conservatives: presenting a racist such as Imus as the “victim” of a largely inconsequential person of color while at the same time willfully ignoring the ACTUAL points of influence and power that led to Imus’ sacking.

    and instantly invoked a leftist tactic of ‘reasoning’ that throws in a bunch of non-germane information that has spooky overtones.

    The CEOs of the advertisers didn’t pull the plug on their Imus ads. Their marketing directors did. If those marketing directors are like most other marketing directors in my ken, they are typically and vaguely ‘left’. They hold their positions through their efforts to ensure that the brand doesn’t get stuck to any tar babies of public outrage, not through their efforts to take public stands.

    But go right ahead. Introduce the fact that the CEOs are conservative with the (hint, hint) that big business is creepy. Ignore the fact that even megalithic corporations do not, as a rule, have monolithic political viewpoints. Is so much more effective in preaching to the choir.

  18. James Joyner says:

    presenting a racist such as Imus as the “victim” of a largely inconsequential person of color while at the same time willfully ignoring the ACTUAL points of influence and power that led to Imus’ sacking.

    I’m not particularly concerned that a multi-millionaire lost his radio show. I suspect he’ll survive. I’m concerned about the broader point that this case illustrates, of mere words being punished by public ostracism and corporations bowing to the lowest common denominator to avoid controversy. It’s not a healthy situation.

  19. NoZe:

    I am pretty sure you are correct: that the Dixie Chicks suffered very little (if at all) in terms of sales.

  20. Tom Chapman says:

    I know I’m not alone in saying good riddance to Imus. The man is a pig. Worse, he’s not remotely funny. He appeals to the most vulgar, adolescent personality traits of his listeners and has made a good living doing it. I hope this is the last we hear from him.

    Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have never been anything but lying shake down artists who represent no one but themselves. Opportunist is too good a word for JJ and Al. Extortionist is more accurate.

    Not commenting on the cultural or political ramifications of this episode. I don’t think there will be any. Imus’ firing is a blip on the cultural radar. It’ll be forgotten next week.

  21. Bithead says:

    .. ignores the fact that this is exactly what Jackson and Sharpton ahve been doing for decades, now.

    Ok, Bithead, Im not sure where that quote is from, but it supports my point: it was due to advertiser pressure that Viacom and GE sacked Imus.

    Heh… Quite true. Which is precisely why I said that in the first place. Where you go wrong, however, is what drove the advertisers. What drove the advertisers was an extortion campaign on the part of Al Sharpton.

    James:

    I’m not particularly concerned that a multi-millionaire lost his radio show. I suspect he’ll survive. I’m concerned about the broader point that this case illustrates, of mere words being punished by public ostracism and corporations bowing to the lowest common denominator to avoid controversy. It’s not a healthy situation.

    It most certainly is not, because it affects our free speech rights in a very real, very concrete way. I.e., two, was less than concerned with the Imus losing his perch. the fact is he’ll be back, probably on satellite someplace, in very short order.

    But in the meantime, let’s consider the ramifications of this, in a somewhat longer term fashion; (no, Tom, this isn’t going away next week)….Ddoes anybody really think that now that the beast has been fed, and Imus is gone, that the beast won’t be back to feed again, and being stronger will be even harder to oppose?

  22. G.A.Phillips says:

    Yes I believe the door to censorship has been kicked wide open and that it appears the Liberals are reveling in the new found power of one of their oldest principles.