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Free Speech For Me, Not For Thee

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On April 4, 2007, Don Imus, the famous mumbling radio grump, set his 30-year career as a shock jock back somewhere between five and fifteen years when he described the highly successful Rutgers ladies' basketball as "nappy-headed hos." He was trying to be amusing, yet cutting edge, but wound up being vilified in the media, by community leaders, and, of course, by most politicians. Based on what he said, he deserves every bit of it. To his credit, Imus admits as much.

Now a wider debate has begun regarding this kind of derogatory language, and I think it's a debate that is long overdue. What Imus said was abhorrent; as well, it was something you can hear every day if you listen to nearly any of the top 10 rap songs currently playing in the United States.

Michelle Malkin, syndicated columnists and Fox News Analyst, noted recently, "Imus gets a two-week suspension. What kind of relief do we get from this deadening, coarsening, dehumanizing barrage from young, black rappers and their music industry enablers who have helped turn America into Tourette's Nation?"

How massive is that "dehumanizing barrage" which emanates from the rap community? A search of SongLyrics’ database was quite revealing. Beginning just with the words Imus used on April 4th and running a search of rap artists’ lyrics, the word "nappy" showed up in hundreds of songs. Some of the lines include the following:

• "I can't stand no sneaker-wearing nappy head bit_h (word)" – 2Pac: Song lyrics from "Fu__ Friends"
• "Violent J won't be ganked by no nappy-headed, bare-footed, crackheaded sewer skank" – Insane Clown Posse: Song lyrics from "Ghetto Zone Lyrics."
• "Cuz she's got a gang o' kidz nappy-heads and all dirty and she's gettin pimped by a n___ that's thirty." – N.W.A: Lyrics from "Just Don't Bite It."

As for the term "hos," I don't think it's necessary to even go there. Referencing females as "hos" in the rap genre is so common that any given search will likely turn up over a thousand uses of the word. The same goes, of course, for rappers who use even worse kinds of language to describe women and who very often in their videos dress those women up in skin-tight outfits and put them on display like pieces of meat.

None of that excuses what Imus said during his show; instead, it underscores some problems in our culture. First, we have a growing number of artists who demean women. Secondly, this demeaning language is tolerated. Finally, tolerance for such language is highly inconsistent.

This inconsistency was perfectly illustrated by rapper Snoop Dogg during an interview with MTV where he stated that "Rappers are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing sh–, that's trying to get a n—a for his money."

It sounds as if, here, Snoop Dogg is saying it's okay to demean any woman who has not "made it to the next level," but then he goes on to make his most revealing statement by saying, "we ain't no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls… I will not let them mutha—–as say we in the same league as him." In other words, if you're old and white, it's wrong; but if you're black — and young, I suppose — it's okay.

Unfortunately, the reality of this thinking is borne out by the overall reaction to Imus’ idiotic statement. Imus' career is faltering over what he said while rap artists rake in millions of dollars for saying that and much worse. Coming from Imus' mouth, it is "hate speech." Coming from Snoop Dogg, or 2Pac, or a hundred other artist's mouths, these are "..songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel," as Snoop Dogg so eloquently stated during his interview.

What we're learning with this whole Imus flap is that there is a complicated hierarchy of privilege when it comes to the way people in this country define “free speech.” As a white conservative male, I would appear to reside on the lowest rung of the hierarchy; meaning the rules for me are far more stringent than for anyone else.

I understand there’s some reason for this given the history of this country and rights that were denied to women and minorities for significant periods of time. I just don’t understand, though, how it is okay for women to demean themselves and for minorities to demean themselves ever! Why should it be okay for anyone to use race or gender slurs ever to insult someone else?

Snoop Dogg's comments underscore our stilted thinking when it comes to the meaning of free speech. During the interview, Snoop Dogg sounded more outraged that someone would dare compare his song lyrics and public statements (which are far worse) to an “old-ass” white guy who uses slang invented by the “gangsta rap” culture.

I think the translation here is this: What is free speech for me is not free speech for thee.

Just yesterday, Mediabistro reported that Joan Rivers, upon exiting an invitation-only lunch sponsored by Arianna Huffington for women in the media, spoke to reporters saying, "You’re better off out here! That was a roomful of bitches in there!" Funny if you're a woman perhaps, but what if a man had said such a thing? What we're dealing with is "gated-speech." There are certain people who can enter into that realm of derogatory speech, but those who do not belong are barred – with dire consequences should they try.

Turning Don Imus into a sacrificial lamb is not the path to creating a more civil society. Neither is passing more stringent laws via the FCC regarding what we should be saying and what we should not be saying over the airwaves. In a free society, you should say what you mean and mean what you say.

At the same time, is it ever really necessary and useful to bring down a whole class of people based on race, gender, or economic status? This is what we see with Don Imus' statement, and with Joan Rivers' comment, and from Snoop Dogg's interview with MTV, and with hundreds of rap songs that fill the airwaves every day across the country.

Am I wrong?

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About David

  • CaliGirl

    Why is everyone attacking hip hop music? The word did NOT come from “gangsta rap”. Hip Hop is very diverse, depending on the region of the US it comes from. There is west coast, dirty south, east coast, midwest, haifee and so on. They are all completely different. They all talk about different topics. For everyone to criticize the entire hip hop culture and “young black males” is just another form of subtle racism. White people have been fired up to destroy this culture and market for being so successful and ultimately “poisoning” the minds of their offspring. -It sounds bad when you generalize EVERYONE doesn’t it?

  • If the word did not come from gangsta rap, where did it come from? And even if it did not, gangsta rap has glorified the use of these terms.

    I’m not saying that all Rap is bad. What I am saying is that, when it comes to demeaning messages, Rap is the worst of the popular genres of music.

    But if there is a worse genre than Rap, please enlighten me so that I might stand corrected.



  • I think you’re intertwining two distinct speech issues here:

    1. Government regulation of speech. This is what is (or should be) not allowed by the First Amendment, which the FCC tramples every time it fines or threatens a broadcaster.

    2. Media presentation of speech – which the media have every right to regulate. Indeed, one might say that they have an obligation to throw people like Imus off the air.

    No one, in other words, is depriving Imus of his free speech – just his right to be paid millions of dollars for it, or to present it to millions of people.

  • Jo

    Look it’s easy to understand, when Imus said these expressions it was offensive, but when rap says similar or worse expressions it’s called poetic inspirations…why every woman of every race and color loves to be called a ho’ in other words we can – you can’t.

  • Well, as I say in my article, this is more of a “gated speech” issue, with different levels of consequence depending on race and gender. So, for example, if Ludacris had been on Imus’ show on April 4 and called the Rutgers ladies basketball team the name that Imus had used, everyone would have laughed and that would have been that.

    If someone had asked Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson what they thought of Ludacris’ statement, they would have offered some lame excuse, probably labelling him a “controversial artist.” But it was, as Snoop Dogg says, an “old-ass” white guy who said it, which makes it an unforgivable sin.

    Yet Ludacris makes a helluva lot more money per year than Imus. And, just to underscore my point, here are some lyrics from one of Ludacris’ songs:

    Ho (Ho)
    You’z a Ho, (Ho)
    You’z a Ho, I said that you’z a Ho (Ho)
    You’z a Ho, (Ho)

    You’z a Ho, (Ho)
    You’z a Ho, I said that you’z a Ho (Ho)

    You doing Ho activities
    With Ho tendencies
    Hos are your friends,
    Hos are your enemies

    Nuff said!

  • tcandew

    To compare rappers to Don Imus is just silly.

    Imagine that Ludacris hosts a radio show. Now imagine that Tim Russert is a weekly guest on his radio show. Can you picture that in your mind? Good. Because ONLY then would a comparison between the condemnation of Don Imus and the so called ‘non-condemnation’ of gangsta rappers be valid.

    If Howard Stern had said what Imus said (and Stern has said MUCH worse) it would not be a big deal and nobody would care. Imus on the other hand is afforded a certain level of stature, apparently hes a good guy to have in your corner if you need to sell a book. He has politicians, pundits, and mainstream journalist on his show every day to speak about serious domestic and foregin policy issues. These people are respected figures (John Kerry, Chris Dodd, Tim Russert et al). They know Imus reputation, they know he says sophomoric, offensive, sexist, sometimes racist things, yet they continue to support him and continue to go on his show.

    The politicians and pundits that come on his show are the very same people who detest the likes of a Howard Stern or 50 Cent and would never sit down and have a serious conversation, let alone be interview by them. So why didn’t they stand up to the vulgarity, and ignorance of Don Imus?

    One minute hes (Imus) doing an offensive (probably unfunny) comedy bit, the next minute Chris Dodd is on anouncing his presidential candidacy.

    What the hell is that?

    You dont see ‘Snoop Dogg’ trying to host ‘Meet The Press’.

    You dont see Howard Stern on ‘The Mclaughlin Group’.

    You dont see 50 Cent on ‘Hardball’.

    You dont see the the creators of South Park on ‘Face the Nation’.

    The real double standard is that Don Imus, because he is a white man and liked by other more respectable white men, had been given a vulgarity pass. He had a liscense to have it both ways. That liscense afforded him the right to be crude, sexist, and racist and still be taken seriously by the mainstream media and political establishment. No African American (rapper, comedian or otherwise) in the history in this nation has ever been given similar liscense.

    Please spare me the “censored white man” rhetoric. Nobody took away Imus first amendment rights. For 40 years Imus acted like an immature brat yet he was still invited to the grown up table.

    The lesson of this entire ordeal is that if you want to be taken seriously as political commentator you have to act like a serious political commentator (not a juvenile).

    It took Imus 40 years to learn that.

  • Tcandew: Funny that you should comment on “serious politicians” speaking to Don Imus but not to Rap stars. First let me give you an excerpt from the NY Times:
    “Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat who is running for president, called on MSNBC and CBS Radio to disassociate themselves from Mr. Imus, and said that he would never go on the show again. He said he had appeared once, more than two years ago.

    ‘He didn’t just cross the line,’ Mr. Obama said in an interview with ABC News. ‘He fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America.'”

    Now let me give you a quote from a recent AP article:
    “The stars were aligned in Chicago Wednesday, and they were there to talk about lighting the way for the nation’s youth.

    U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, contemplating a run for president, met privately with rapper Ludacris to talk about young people.

    ‘We talked about empowering the youth,’ said the artist, whose real name is Chris Bridges. . . .

    The gathering at Obama’s downtown Chicago office was a meeting of two star powers: Obama, who enjoys rock star-like status on the political scene, and Ludacris, who has garnered acclaim for his music and acting. . . .

    Bridges said meeting Obama, known for his warm personal style, was like meeting with a relative.”

    What is the point of offering these quotes? Because serious politicians work with movie stars, rock stars, rap stars, and anyone else who they think might help them win votes.

    The irony of this particular situation is that the song quote I offered above is from Ludacris, THE SAME GUY who said of Obama, “it was like meeting with a relative.” Want to hear some more of Ludacris’ lyrics from the “You’Z A Hoe” song? Here are just a few more lines, appropriately censored:
    (You’s a Ho)
    (Muthaf__ka, I ain’t no Ho)
    (yo mama a ho)

    (Mutha f__kas, I’m so tired Of ya’ll nig__s
    always talkin about ho this and Ho that,
    You the muthaf___in Ho n__ga, I wasn’t no Ho last night)

    Ho bring yo a__
    (Okay hold on)

    This is what Ludacris is singing. Is this okay with you? Talk like that wasn’t okay with the Rutgers ladies Basketball team when Imus said it. Why should it be acceptable from any other person whose words and/or music is broadcast over the public airwaves?

    I’m glad that people rejected Imus’s words, but I’m hugely disappointed that the same people condemning Imus defend so-called “artists” like Ludacris.


  • tcandew

    You’re barking up the wrong tree.

    I don’t want anybody on or off the airwaves. It made absolutely no difference to me wether Don Imus was fired or retained.

    I am not here to speak to what other people should find acceptable speech, what others believe is up to them.

    The difference between Imus and Ludacris is simple. Don Imus hosted a nationally syndicated radio show for decades. Everyday respected journalist and political leaders came on. Every weekday for years. His show was a ‘must do’ for serious beltway pundits.

    That is certainly not the same as one politician having one meeting with one rapper, about AIDS prevention. (Obama has recently condemed rappers about their degrading lyrics, the same way he condemed Imus)

    Show me a black rapper who constantly makes derogatory, sexist, racist, homophobic comments that is afforded a daily platform to interview powerful politicians and journalist.

    this isn’t about race this is about context. Rush Limbaugh can say whatever he wants, the creators of South Park can say whatever they want, Howard Stern can say whatever he wants.

    but like I said before.

    The lesson of this entire ordeal is that if you want to be taken seriously as political commentator you have to act like a serious political commentator (not a juvenile).

  • But when has Imus ever been “serious” in terms of his political commentary? True that he interviews a wide variety of guests including politicians, other radio personalities, stars, etc.

    But he has said MANY outrageous things before with barely a blip of interest from the national media. For example, he called MSNBC political commentator Tucker Carlson a “bowtie-wearing pussy.” He also called one reporter a boner-nosed, beany-wearing Jew-boy, and publishers at Simon & Schuster “thieving Jews.” He then later apologized for his remark about the publishers at Simon & Schuster saying that he misspoke because the term “thieving Jews” is redundant.

    This was Imus’ thing, he called everyone names and people looked the other way, mainly because he was generally, not always, liberal in his bent. And Imus used the same airwaves as Ludicrus. Furthermore, Imus has raised TENS of millions for charitable causes, mostly related to children.

    So why are people so eager to censor Imus and seem ready, willing, and eager to defend people like Ludicrus who routinely demeans women in his songs? I have two daughters who have to grow up in this society, so this is very important to me.

    We should condemn all of this stuff, not just Imus. Again, that is why this is not as much an issue of free speech as it is “gated speech.” Some are allowed to demean women, some are not. Some classes of people in this society are fair game for insults, some are not.

    We should be either hot or cold on this issue. Either you should defend Imus AND rappers like Ludicrus, 2Pac, and Snoop Dogg or you should condemn Imus and anyone else who disparages other based on race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, etc.

    Standing in the middle to defend one and condemn another makes no sense to me.

  • tcandew

    “Standing in the middle to defend one and condemn another makes no sense to me.”

    I’m not condeming or defending anybody. Your argument is flawed. Like I said, its about context. I don’t understand why you continue to play the race card.

    The creators of South Park (Matt Stone & Trey Parker, 2 white men) make racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti religious jokes all the time. On the latest show they said the word “nigger” dozens of times. In a past episode they mocked Mormons. Jesus was portrayed as gun toting lunatic, who shot people with an AK 47.

    They have not been fired, they have not been censored. Why not? because they don’t work for a news organization. The company they work for sets a certain standard, and they believe that racist, sexist, and anti religious jokes are ok.

    When you step into the news and political realm, and everyday you sit down with the likes of Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, and John Kerry, you are held to a different standard, a higher standard.

    For decades, Imus didn’t behave in a way that was appropriate for the job that he had. For some reason he wasn’t held accountable for his behavior. Now he is being held accountable.

  • Except that Imus was never a “news” guy. He was, as all have said, a “shock jock.” It was his job to say things exactly like what Trey Parker and Matt Stone say with their show “South Park.” He does what Howard Stern does, what Don & Mike do, what all shock jocks do, say stupid things for a living.

    Howard Stern talks to politicians and by your own admission, he has said even worse things. Has he been fired?

    Unfortunately, in Imus’ case, it was not about “doing the right thing” to CBS. They saw that the controversy was going to cost more than they made from the show. They saw as well his major sponsors walking away. Since money talks, it was Imus who walked.

    And, by the way, if you think Imus was a “serious” news person, then you obviously never listened to his show.

  • tcandew

    I listened and watched Imus show. Imus on a daily basis made sexist, racist, offensive jokes. Also on a daily basis he sat down with political leaders and big media types and had serious discussions. His frequent guest, Howard Fineman (newsweek) Tom Oliphant (formerly of the Boston Globe) Craig Crawford (Congressional Quarterly) all attest to his serious discussions about world events.

    When a sexist, racist, offensive rapper has a terrestrial radio show(simelcast on a 24 hour news network) and sits down with political big wigs on a daily basis to talk serious politics you call me, I’ll check the thermostat in Hell.

    No “shock jock” has his show simelcast on a 24 hour news network. No Shock Jock has ever been allowed to make racist, sexist, anti religious, homophobic comments on the public airwaves and also be allowed to sit down with high profile politicians for serious discussions.

    Howard Stern interviews politicians maybe once in a blue moon and the discussions are NEVER serious EVER. Also, Howard Stern is now on Sattelite radio, he’s not boradcast on the public airwaves anymore.

    Matt Stone and Trey Parker, two white men who bash everything from Islam to Christianity have not been taken off the air. South Park has run for 10 years, all the while offending every race, religion, and ethnic group. Somebody should really tell them that they don’t have the same “freedom of speech” as Snoop Dogg.

  • Say what you will, everyone knew Imus as a shock jock. I was watching “Meet the Press” this morning with Tim Russert and some other notable members of the media and they all referred to him that way.

    Just because other shock jocks do not do what Imus did doesn’t mean they couldn’t.

  • STM

    I must say I was pretty blown away a few years ago when I read that some universities in the US were offering courses on – how would you describe it, blackspeak?

    Perhaps just teaching everyone to speak English in the first place would go a long way.

    However, young black singers using the language of their peers is no different to young singers anywhere using the language of their peers.

    The key might be to change the language so it’s used properly in the first place.