Talk-show host Don Imus has probably figured this out already: As he works through his apology to the Rutgers women's basketball team, he's also defining the line that separates what's acceptable from what's not in public discourse.
In American society, that line moves around, and unfortunately, it's been moving in the direction of ever more crassness and hurtfulness. Talk first, think later – or don't think at all. That's been the pattern with certain celebrities, politicians, media personalities, and other high-profile individuals who set public standards, intentionally or not.
Before Mr. Imus insulted the mostly African-American team with a racial, sexist slur on his show last week, there was former "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards. He hurled racial epithets at blacks during a stand-up comedy routine. Before that, it was another actor, Mel Gibson, who spewed anti-Semitic insults when stopped for drunken driving. In between was former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who singled out an Indian-American campaign worker with derogatory shorthand.
Those are just the headline grabbers. But every hour, bloggers and others type out nasty stuff on the Internet, which has become quite the vial of vitriol. Cyberbullying, death threats, and personal maligning seem to come easily in a forum where anonymity forgoes accountability.
The First Amendment protects free speech, but not of the yelling-fire-in-a-crowded-theater, libel, or slander kind. Outside the law, society must define how bad is bad.
The context and content of an offensive remark, the insulter's remorse (or lack of it) and acts of contrition, the injured party's reaction, and the public's response all determine when a line is crossed.
Millions of listeners and viewers follow Imus for his popular mix of crudeness, rudeness, and intelligent talk with the political and media elite. But the host's partial explanations that his show is a comedy (that's the context) and that blacks routinely use the slang that he used (more context) certainly haven't convinced the Rutgers players so far. As excuses, they don't qualify.
The content itself was too severe for that, and the players completely undeserving – as Imus, in one of his apologies, admitted.
That the public, too, is outraged is a sign that it hasn't gone completely numb to this issue of coarsening. In fact, people are pushing back on several fronts, showing there's a market for decency.
Internet sites, books, and other media that celebrate kindness and goodness are catching on. Sales of rap music are declining rapidly. Could that be because so much of it is trash talk? Some Internet movers and shakers are now working to bring a code of civility to blogging. Four former leaders of the US Senate are intent on restoring respectful discourse to politics and recently set up a Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
In the case of Imus, who will be suspended Monday for two weeks, major advertisers have decided to pull out of the show. Baseball star Cal Ripken canceled an appearance – a sign that individuals can make a difference.
Imus himself has a chance to do that. He meets with the Rutgers women Tuesday. Depending on his sincerity and reform (he promises to change his show's "discourse"), he can move back the line he has advanced. He can show that equating black women with prostitutes is neither funny, nor acceptable. •