Humor isn’t always hate speech

by Jim Longworth

I grew up listening to the comedy stylings of Red Foxx, Don Rickles and (later) Richard Pryor and Don Imus. As an adult I became a huge fan of Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, Andrew “Dice” Clay and Chris Rock. They all have one thing in common: insult humor. They made slurs against whites, blacks, women, men, gays, straights, Puerto Ricans, Jews, politicians, athletes and anyone else who got in their line of fire.

Somehow, despite all that negative exposure, I never used the “N” word, never judged people based on their looks or religion, or to my knowledge ever intentionally demeaned women or gays. True, I was never personally the object of the comedians’ derision, so I can’t say with any certainty how I would have reacted to a slur against me or my family by any of those legendary funnymen. But I do know that, in those days, people had pretty thick skin and didn’t whine to the media every time an insult was hurled. And that brings me to Imus’ latest indiscretion and to the subsequent fallout.

For five decades now, Don Imus has been a political and social satirist. He is now and always has been arrogant and obnoxious, so it came as no surprise that he jokingly referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” But according to fellow comedian Bill Maher, what made Don’s latest attack so problematic was that it broke the two main rules of comedy. The slur wasn’t based on truth, and the attack was made on young coeds and not against a powerful public figure.

I agree with Maher to some extent, but the Rutgers women became public figures by way of their outstanding play on national television. And while Imus’ hurtful, stupid statement was off color, it was not necessarily off limits. Remember – Rickles, Foxx, Kinison, Clay and others made a living by slinging racist and sexist remarks at perfect strangers in attendance at their concerts, and those “victims” were never powerful public figures.

Then there’s the argument by some that college athletes in general are off limits.  Speaking to David Carr of The New York Times, George Washington University professor Robert Entman said that college athletics is “sacred” in our culture.

Bull. College athletics is all about money and power. On the men’s side it is replete with greedy coaches and players, and on the women’s side it features scandals such as the recent firing of a coach who was accused of having an affair with one of her players. And just for the record, Imus’s remarks in no way dimished the accomplishments of the Rutgers team. To the contrary. His cruel, misplaced attempt at humor has brought more attention, recognition and respect to the Rutgers women (and to all of women’s basketball) than would have been possible otherwise. To say any different is to demean the courage and empowerment of these young women who are old enough to know that Imus is a harmless jerk and a crusty old white guy who has no credibility in this matter.

Speaking of credibility, let’s mention two crusty old black men who also have none. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are the worst kind of pandering opportunists in America. They are alarmists who make a living off of inserting themselves into situations in hopes of turning mole hills into mountains.

Respected black journalists such as Larry Elder and Joe Madison have expressed their anger (most recently on “Larry King Live”) with Jackson and Sharpton for presuming to speak for all African Americans. Madison also blamed the media for always seeking out the dynamic duo of doom for sound bites instead of taking time to contact leading black educators and journalists. And the ultimate hypocrisy was Jesse and Al demanding apologies from Imus. Here are two guys who have slurred Jews (remember Jackson’s “Hymie Town” rant?) and women (Sharpton referring to the Central Park jogger as a “whore”), and who both demanded a rush to judgement in the Duke lacrosse rape case, in which they convicted three innocent young men in the media, and helped to destroy three families in the process. Not one apology has come from Jackson and Sharpton in those matters. 

But in all fairness, I can’t lay the entire blame at the clay feet of the two rabble-rousing reverends. As David Carr pointed out, we are living in an age where radio is now visible. In the past, Imus, Howard Stern and other shock jocks were insulated by their own niche audiences, and never concerned themselves with more far-reaching implications of their profanities or hurtful slurs. But today millions of people have access to television simulcasts, and millions others are alerted by media watchdog groups, thus creating an immediate firestorm whenever someone perceives that someone else might by offended by something said on any given broadcast.

Finally there is the issue of fairness. When sponsors were frightened by hypocrites Jackson and Sharpton, CBS pulled the plug on Imus. Did the punishment fit the crime? No, but the network can’t disregard the fears and concerns of advertisers, and so Imus became a casualty of his own battlefield. He lived by the sword, and he died by the sword. Still, Jackson and Sharpton continue to operate freely without regard to the damage they cause, while young black rappers continue to use undeniable hate speech without fear of retribution.

I don’t see CBS threatening to ban rappers from appearing on MTV, for example. And I don’t see HBO pulling the plug on “Bad Boys of Comedy,” a recent episode of which was laced with repeated use of the “N” word, and with one African-American comedian referring to members of his own race as “monkey ass.” This kind of unchecked hate speech sends a mixed message to our young people, and the double standard only serves to fuel racial divides in this country.

I can’t help but think back to the days of Muhammad Ali and Bobby Riggs. Ali consistently hurled hateful slurs at his opponents during the pre-fight press conferences, and that just made guys like Ken Norton and Joe Frazier fight better. Riggs, meanwhile, leveled every kind of gender slur at Billie Jean King, but she responded by kicking his butt in the tennis match of the century. The two remained friends until Bobby’s death. It was an era when a guy like Don Rickles could attack anyone and everyone without fear of litigation or loss of income. It was a time when Richard Pryor railed against ignorant white crackers, but everyone knew his rants were benign, though socially relevant.

The Rutgers basketball team has not been sullied by Don Imus, and their coach should have taken the opportunity to go on Imus’ show and blister him in jest. That would have prevented a destructive media frenzy, and instead turned it into a constructive, humorous discourse. 

We as a society must try and reclaim our sense of humor. We must not rely on loud-mouthed opportunists such as Imus, Jackson or Sharpton to provide our moral compass, or fuel our inner fears and prejudices. If someone uses sexually harassing speech in the workplace, then it’s okay to get them fired. But if a comedian takes a shot at you, then deal with it in like manner. Either let it roll off your back, or challenge the idiot to a humorous debate. Be like Joe Frazier and Bille Jean King. Don’t let someone else define you. And don’t lose your ability to recognize the difference between hate speech and humor speech, and then act accordingly. More times than not, I think we’ll come to realize that laughter, not anger, is the best defense against most offenses.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).