‘Intent’ defense doesn’t excuse Imus’ words

In a televised statement over the weekend, radio personality Don Imus had this to say: “There’s a difference between pre-meditated murder, and the gun going off accidentally. I mean, someone still gets shot, but the charges are dramatically different.”

The murderer in this case was Imus himself, who was drawing an analogy between shooting a gun at a person and shooting off his mouth about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. The comparison to a killing is apt. First came the despicable act itself: Imus dismissed the team’s members on air as “nappy-headed hos,” inflicting a punishing dose of both racism and misogyny in a mere three words. He was then caught red-handed (it’s pretty hard to hide on the radio), and subjected to the inevitable media storm. Next came calls for him to be fired, his temporary suspension from work, and demands from MSNBC that he give a reasonable explanation of his behavior.

This brings us to the informal — and very public — trial, in which Imus must defend himself from, well, pretty much everyone. In his statement, which rambles on for a good 13 minutes and can be heard online, Imus touches on a few of the classic defenses typical of shock-jocks who have gone too far.

He apologizes, and acknowledges that his comment was inexcusable. He then backpedals, arguing that his show “has been for 30 or 35 years a program that makes fun of everybody.” You wish he wouldn’t go on, because you know what’s coming next: the I-have-black-friends-too argument. Imus spends the last half of his televised time talking up the ranch that he and his wife have set up in New Mexico for poor, seriously ill children, nearly half of whom, he reports, come from “minority groups.” He holds up the ranch like a shield, losing himself in stories of this or that child as we wonder if he’ll ever get back to the main topic.

Everyone’s heard these kinds of excuses before; just look at Michael Richards’ discombobulated apology for his comedy club diatribe. What makes the Imus situation different, and of greater interest to the rest of us, is the extent to which he has emphasized the idea of intention to craft a moral defense of indefensible speech.

Over the weekend, Imus appeared on Al Sharpton’s radio show (if you’re still into the trial idea, think of this as the mother of all cross-examinations). According to The New York Times, Imus told Sharpton, “A crucial difference [in this context] is: What was my intent?” Sharpton reportedly replied that “intent could not be considered when actions were ‘over the line.’ ”

Really? If that’s the case, then our whole society has to go back to the drawing board and figure out all over again when hateful speech is and isn’t acceptable. I thought we had pretty much concluded that any racial epithet was fine when used by a member of that race and despicable otherwise. The theory of that solution is rooted in the idea of intention: No one seriously wants to deride his own race, and so using historically vicious words to describe oneself is to victoriously appropriate them. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the double standards of that logic, and according to his claims about intention, neither has Sharpton. But I don’t see him going after hip-hop stars, who use the kind of language he derides here. Sharpton has seemingly screened them out because their intention is clearly not racist, and he may be right to do so. Then why hold Imus to a different standard and indiscriminately reject his explanations of his comment, murder analogy and all?

The reason is that, according to Sharpton, Imus’ actions will “set a precedent.” That might have been true if Imus had escaped unnoticed, but the media maelstrom takes care of most of that. The disappointing part of Sharpton’s logic is that Imus did not resort to standard racist epithets, but instead used words — in particular, “hos” — that have been popularized by the “precedent” of gangsta rap. If only Sharpton would realize that the problem is greater than a single crass and consistently unfunny shock-jock, maybe he could turn a critical eye toward the cultural institutions, like basic FM radio, that teach us to ingest commonplace racist jargon with our Top 40.

I wonder if Sharpton would have gotten up in arms if Imus had used a word other than “hos” to deride women. It’s doubtful. “Hos” made a splash because it seems racially charged. The word is apparently acceptable when used in hip-hop, but not under any other circumstances. But the question here is one of gender, not race — “hos” is a cheap kind of misogyny that even Sharpton passes off as a cultural thing. Tuesday’s New York Times featured an op-ed by Gwen Ifill standing up to Imus’ cheap shots at women. It’s this kind of strong female voice that is needed if Imus is truly to be put in his place.

Alexandra Schwartz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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