Word and Object

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Specificity of Discourse

April 14th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · 3 Comments

Don Imus rightly has been condemned, and then fired, for his use of the phrase “nappy-headed hos” with reference to the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team. I think Mr. Imus is an execrable person – not for his predictably “shock-jock” views, but rather: (a) for not being able to speak properly. He’s a mumbler, and in this respect, resembles our President, George W. Bush. Also: (b) for pretending he knows something about arts, culture and literature, which he doesn’t. At least Howard Stern has the good sense to focus primarily on strippers and lesbians. Oh yes, and: (c) for setting up a fake cancer charity at his personal ranch in Texas or New Mexico, or wherever it is. The purpose of this post, however, is not to “climb on” controversy surrounding Mr. Imus; as I write, Google Entertainment has links to 3,344 separate news articles, and only God knows how many blogs there are, discussing these issues.

Rather, what’s interesting is, several commentators have extrapolated from Mr. Imus’ particular circumstances, and see the situation as a foil or platform to descry the state of contemporary media. How much longer, they wonder, will P. Diddy, R. J. Kelly, the rap/hip-hop community, and other assorted miscreants, get a pass for their use of similarly-pejorative terms? See, e.g., Garofoli, J., “Experts see firing of Imus as broadcast tipping point – Extraordinary push by sponsors, activists, network employees,” San Francisco Chronicle (Apr. 13, 2007); Kava, B., “Experts predict move to civility on talk radio after Imus firing,” San Jose Mercury-News (Apr. 13, 2007); Kava, B., “Imus dismissal may have profound effect on media,” San Jose Mercury-News (Apr. 12, 2007); and Garofoli, J., “Imus ouster perhaps a tipping point regarding on-air language,” scrippsnews.com (Apr. 13, 2007).

The answer to this question is, these different types of media have nothing to do with each other. They partake of varying degrees of plasticity, in McLuhan-esque terms. Despite its pretense at spontaneity or improvisation, rap records are meticulously produced by industry heavy-weights such as Dr. Dre. So are movies like “Hustle & Flow,” with its celebratory anthem, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” winner of the 2005 Oscar for best song in a motion picture. One therefore might characterize their mode of discourse as more preconceived, more deliberate. While I’m sure Mr. Imus likes to provoke controversy whenever and wherever he can, it’s doubtful his remarks were “scripted” in this careful a manner.

But time-frame and pre-meditation are not the most defining characteristics. Rather, it is the specificity of discourse. Rap records, “Hustle & Flow,” etc. are not directed towards specific individuals. Rather, they more are in the nature of cultural commentary, or cultural observation. Highly sensationalized, so it’s better marketable, for sure, but such a critique, nonetheless. Mr. Imus’ remarks, on the other hand, were directed at a specific group of individuals, who then later were able to appear, sympathetically, on television, and even interact with Mr. Imus in the mandatory expiation ritual which so many celebrities undergo in penance for their transgressions: Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, etc.

This still does not explain phenomena such as Anne Coulter, the desiccated-yet-still-somehow-sexy harpie and conservative commentator. For example, her remark characterizing presidential candidate John Edwards as a “faggot,” essentially went unpunished – indeed, practically unobserved, particularly when considered in light of the Imus affair. The reason for this is, Mr. Edwards is a public figure. Whereas, the members of the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team, aren’t. They didn’t invite, or expose themselves to, such remarks from somebody like Mr. Imus, whereas, Mr. Edwards did.

It’s also possible public opinion rallied around the women’s status as a sports team; or even the fact they’re a women’s sports team. For example, I doubt Mr. Imus would have gotten into hot water for characterizing the USC or UCLA men’s basketball team as a bunch of “pimps,” or some similar word of approbation (analogous to “ho” when applied to women). While these may have been factors, I think they are secondary to specificity of discourse.

Nobody seems to have noticed this, but I think there’s a curious connection between Mr. Imus’ downfall and the forthcoming downfall of Alberto Gonzales, our attorney general. There’s no particular link between these two stories, except that the media seems to have tasted blood with Mr. Imus, which may inflame its passions vis-à-vis Mr. Gonzales. He’s a nincompoop anyway you look at it, and shouldn’t even be considered as a city attorney, much less Attorney General of the United States. My point is much simpler, though – which is, once the cry goes up for “off with their heads,” it’s a difficult train to derail.