Don Imus’ Lesson to us All

Why would Don Imus’ 28 year radio career at CBS, “Imus in the Morning”, come to an abrupt end on April 12, 2007? He was fired that day for racial and sexist remarks regarding the Rutgers Women’s basketball team. The outcry was a little bit surprising; Imus is not the first or only public figure in this country to use such harsh words. They are used in TV shows, other radio shows, movies, songs and other forms of media all the time. It is certainly not the first time Imus himself or guests on his show have made remarks like that. Imus has a long history of allegations of misogyny, racism and homophobia based on remarks he has made on his show.

I think to begin to answer the question of Imus’ firing it is important to look at the collective psyche of Americans. This is a country that is filled with anger and stress. It fueled by the fact that we are severely divided due to the war in Iraq; with the growing discontent from the war, divisions that have always been present have been intensified from the concrete issues of financial “haves and have nots” to the intangible and sometimes dogmatic arguments of what are true family values. Not coincidentally, the incidence of depression and anxiety in the US are as high as they have ever been.

The debates that rage over the firing of Imus are ubiquitous. This is a good thing. These subjects should be thought about and discussed. For that I certainly thank Don Imus. There have been many compelling arguments both for and against the punishments exacted on Imus and both sides have valid points. I think this illustrates the fact that there is no simple right or wrong answer to what has happened. The issues are too complex and multi faceted. There are issues related to money, higher standards for public figures, this being a sign of the times, projected anger or “false horror”, the need for a scapegoat, and perhaps we’ve simply all had enough. Maybe a line against these kinds of things has finally been drawn.

The money issue is obvious. CBS and NBC both lost millions after Imus’ comments because several high profile sponsors pulled their advertisements from his show. The broadcasting companies are businesses first and if something is affecting the bottom line in a negative way, especially to that level, they have to act. I suppose they also wanted to protect their reputations.

In regards to higher standards, I believe that public figures have always had the responsibility to watch what they say. Those from the previous generation may remember the grievous comments of Jimmy the Greek and his sudden dismissal from his high profile job. I think this issue makes sense. If a person makes a career of being in the public eye, which usually is extremely lucrative, there should be a high standard for his or her behavior. Whether they like it or not they have a strong influence on people.

Why might this be a “sign of the times”? People are more and more aware of how racism and hatred can affect others. There are recent studies that show that things like verbal abuse and bullying can cause depression and anxiety and impair the victims inother ways several years after the fact. With the increased awareness of the power of words, there may be less tolerance for using harmful language.

“False horror” is a term that Bill Maher, the famous politically minded comedian coined. It basically refers to a psychiatric term called “projection”. It is the idea that it is easier to be mad at others and judge others than it is to look inside and deal with bad feelings about the self. Another term for this is “ego defense”. The process is that a person will unconsciously put one’s own problems or bad feelings on somebody else so he or she does not have to own them or deal with the pain and negativity involved. We are a society that has growing problems with mental illness, economic and social issues and even international criticism. You can see how “false horror” may be part of the issue here.

The idea that Imus has been made a scapegoat is related to the previous paragraph. It is much easier to blame a vulnerable individual than to look deeper into where things like racism, ignorance and hatred in a whole society come from. Additionally, there is a history of high profile people making insensitive remarks and getting away with it. Perhaps we are all tired of that and Imus has become a scapegoat for that. It did not help him that his remarks were aimed at specific people who were not public figures. This seemed to be even more hurtful.

Finally, maybe a line against public racism or hate has finally been drawn. Others may argue that a line has not been drawn because, for example, hip hop artists are still free to use basically any language they want in their songs. I would argue that this is different. Hip hop songs do not directly target actual people like the women on Rutgers team. Also most famous hip hop artists are young and black. That kind of language is acceptable in that culture and media, where Imus, a 66 year old white man exudes a much stronger feeling of hate and misuse of language (ignorance perhaps) when trying to use that lexicon. Granted, there are also issues with glorifying violence and hatred in multi media, for example in certain hip hop songs, but that is a problem that is not in the scope of this article.

I look at the pictures of the women on the Rutgers basketball team and I feel so bad for them. They made a fantastic run to the championship game of the women’s NCAA basketball tournament and instead of being celebrated, suffered those humiliating and hateful remarks. Further, they are actually getting hate mail from people around the country who are angry that Imus was fired. The team met with Imus on April 12th for three hours. He apologized and they accepted and are “in the process of forgiving”. All the credit in the world to them and I hope people remember what a great accomplishment they had this year.

One of my favorite quotes from this incident comes from C. Vivian Stringer, the coach of the Rutgers women’s basketball team. After the meeting with Imus, she said, “These comments are indicative of greater ills in our culture. It is not just Mr. Imus and we hope that this will be and serve as a catalyst for change.” In a situation like this, I always like to say that even though what’s been done in the past was wrong, it’s what is done next that matters. I think it’s safe to say that Imus’ broadcasting career is not over. He will reappear somewhere and now has a beautiful opportunity to illustrate how an awful and painful event can lead to positive change. Let’s hope he uses it. was used as a reference in writing this article and the quotes came from them.

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