Imus and the Language of PermissivenessAll the turmoil over Don Imus's remarks hvae sent me thinking about several things. One is that derogatory terms and their unpleasant connotations are always the creation of those in power that seeks to label as sub-human those not in power. There are various negative terms that some members of ethnic groups use toward Americans of western European descent, yet these terms have never gained the vitriolic taste of those used by whites for others. There are a number of terms for women that are considered derogatory, yet I can't think of a single one for men that has taken hold. This is because the terms only truly hurt when they become the embodiment of power misused, and for that to happen, the ones using the term must have the power.
I also heard the point some made that Imus used language that is certainly no worse than what what rap and hiphop often use. That got me pondering something odd. If my observation is correct, then African-Americans comprise the only ethnic group I can think of that regularly uses derogatory terms in self-reference. For example, I've heard blacks use the term nigger, but never hear Jews use the word kike, or Italians call themselves wops, or Hispanics name themselves spics. Maybe I'm just naive or inexperienced, but I don't think so.
That brings me to the third point. I know that some African-Americans like Richard Pryor claimed that they used the term nigger to wrest the power from it. Looking at where the country is now, I think what the action did was like whistling when going past a scary place, hoping that nothing will happen. But what this practice did was effectively give permission to others to use the term, no matter how often African-Americans said, "We can use it, but you may not." Speech cannot be contained in this way. If it's wrong from one group to use it, it's wrong for all groups to use it. To use it is to allow others to use it - and to make the associations behind the term become part of our intellectual baggage, because thought is made of words. If you use rotted ingredients in cooking, the food is bad. If you use rotted concepts in your thinking, the thoughts will be bad.
And now for the fouth and final point. I understand why many groups like the National Association of Black Journalists came down so hard on the talk show host. To use language with strongly degrading associations - whether toward race, gender, sexual identity, national origin, or faith - is bad, and to do so with a national media megaphone is indefensible. However, if you condemn one doing this, you must condemn all. You must demand an end to the terms in rap music. You must demand an end to them, no matter what the color or gender of the speaker and no matter who the target. To do less is to use the most powerful language of all - the language of action - to condone such offensiveness so long as it's applied to those whom you dislike. To take action against the various isms of society must begin at home, and must apply to one's self as thoroughly, or even more thoroughly, than one's neighbor.