In March 2007, a naked figure of Jesus sculpted out of chocolate elicited public condemnation from Catholic groups, who claimed it was offensive to their religion. The New York City gallery where the work was to be displayed received threats of boycott and violence and eventually cancelled the exhibition. No sooner had the brouhaha over that media spectacle died than another one took place – with universal expressions of outrage over shock jock Don Imus referring to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." Faced with threats of economic boycott, pullouts by advertisers, and attacks by politicians like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, MSNBC and CBS have both dropped his show.
In both cases, economic and political pressures were successfully leveraged to punish offensive speech. Some might think that anything that raises the "level" of discourse – by eliminating Imus or a chocolate sculpture of Jesus – is a good thing. But is it an unmitigated good? What do we lose when we suspend free speech principles for expression considered by many as beyond the pale?
We have seen controversy over artwork before. The battle over a painting of a black Madonna in the Brooklyn museum in 1999 comes to mind, as does the violent reaction to the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammad. In those cases, as with the Chocolate Jesus, free speech advocates agreed that democratic society must tolerate the right of individuals to express and disseminate unpopular ideas, even if they are offensive to some. Suppressing such ideas–whether through government action, economic boycotts or threats of violence–creates an environment of intimidation that can easily lead to the silencing of criticism or dissent. Those whose feelings might be hurt are free to avoid the offending work or criticize the ideas it expresses. In other words, they're free to exercise their own right to free speech.
Disturbingly, in the Imus case, the media was immediately saturated with outraged demands that he be fired. His remarks, deemed both racist and sexist, crossed an invisible line of public tolerance. Attempts at a reasoned analysis typically ended with the conclusion: "what he did was just wrong and we all know it." Anytime mob mentality takes over, however, it's worth stepping back and asking whether the case is really so clear-cut and one-sided. There are a few reasons to think the situation is a bit more complicated.
First, Imus is a shock jock, i.e. "a radio broadcaster who attracts attention using humor that a significant portion of the listening audience may find offensive."(Wikipedia) Whatever his personal views, Imus's radio persona deliberately flaunts accepted standards of speech and behavior. That is his stock and trade, and he's plainly very good at what he does. His track record as an equal-opportunity offender has been well documented.
Imus' clumsy and offensive attempt at humor wasn't very funny to most listeners, but like the fool in Shakespearean theater who rattles common pieties to highlight our own hypocrisy, his remarks unwittingly exposed a deep strain of hypocrisy within our culture. The politicians and media pundits proved once more that a dumb remark on air will focus attention on the speaker, but not on the underlying racism or sexism which ultimately is what made the Rutgers athletes vulnerable to a passing remark from somebody who offends as a living. Imus' ritual public exorcism will do nothing to redeem the racism and sexism still prevailing in this society.
Hiding symptoms does not cure a disease. No doubt the advertisers and MSNBC consider themselves virtuous, and Al Sharpton will walk away with another notch on his belt. But it's questionable whether this is a net gain if those whose words mirror society are simply forced to bite their tongues.
This suggests the second reason for concern. The Imus case sits on a distinctly slippery slope. Catholic groups call for the removal of a chocolate Jesus and a painting by Chris Ofili, winner of the Turner prize. Jewish groups call for cancellation of exhibits about the effects of war on Palestinians. Women's groups call for suppression of sexual content that disparages or objectifies women. Republicans call for the removal of an outspoken antiwar figure on public radio. Et cetera. Each of these forms of expression is offensive to a particular community, and their response is borne of real grievance. However, the net result of accommodating the desire not to offend is to reduce the sphere of public debate and discussion to an unacceptably small, and bland, space. The very premise of the First Amendment is that vigorous debate, not enforced silence, is the solution to these problems. It means that each of us must tolerate some speech we hate, in exchange for the right to express ourselves fully.
Of course, First Amendment rights are not at issue here, since the participants in this debate are all private parties. That doesn't mean that they – or we – should blithely forget all about the dangers of suppressing speech. Promoting dialogue is at least as important a social goal as promoting civility, and distinctly more valuable than promoting orthodoxy.