"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."
- Ephesians 4:29
The last few days have been emotionally exhausting for America. First there was the Don Imus fiasco, which surfaced deep-rooted pain, suspicion, and anger over racial divisions in America. Then, this week, there was the horror of the Virginia Tech shootings, which forced us to confront the reality of evil, and our fear of mortality. Later, the Supreme Court ruled that partial birth abortion, a grisly procedure that must have been conceived by the producers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, could be banned by law.
While these three stories might seem disparate and disconnected, each involves the debasement of human dignity. It's clear how mass murder and infanticide strike at the heart of human dignity, but it's easy to underestimate the destructive impact of mere words.
Whoever coined the phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," probably meant to encourage some poor child who was being teased in the school yard. We all know, however, the phrase isn't true. Words can wound. They can be terribly destructive. They are, after all, the packages in which we wrap ideas, and ideas have consequences. Hitler successfully labeled the Jews as "vermin", and thereafter managed to get the Germans to turn a blind eye to the mass murder of six-million of them. Here at home, epithets like "nigger" and "jigaboo" were applied to people of African descent, and such labels helped anesthetize the public to the injustice of slavery and unequal treatment of blacks.
When Don Imus described Rutger's highly successful women's basketball team as "nappy headed ho's", the outrage was understandable and the consequences appropriate. Never mind that a double standard was clearly being applied by his critics, Jesse Jackson (who once referred to New York City as "Hymie Town") and Jackson's sidekick, Al Sharpton, who uses words like a rapier. And never mind that rap "artists" regularly demean black women as "bitches" and "hos". Rapper Snoop Dogg made a less than convincing attempt to distinguish between his "work" and that of Imus. The artist said that rappers "are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing sh--, that's trying to get a n---a for his money. These are two separate things." After reading the lyrics of today's most popular music, it is clear that Snoop Dogg is not alone in his beliefs, however disgusting they may be.
When it comes to degrading and mean "humor," some supposedly conservative commentators are little better than Imus. While there is certainly room for parody and sarcasm, the fact is that many radio hosts cross the line into cruelty and debasement of those with whom they disagree—can you spell Michael Savage? These hosts will, in one breath, argue for some Christian moral position, then in the next breath spew venom at their ideological opponents.
Without a doubt, Americans have the right to free speech, but no one is obligated to subsidize speech that degrades and dehumanizes others. In the case of Don Imus, advertisers and network management decided that they were not willing to sponsor a radio host who so casually says racist, cruel words. One is left to wonder, however, what took them so long. Nevertheless, Don Imus is not the first person to be taken to task for contributing to the corruption of culture, and he should not be the last. Disc jockey's that play degrading music should be dismissed and talk show hosts that drag political debate into the sewer should be fired. Entertainers that dehumanize women and minorities, and debase basic human dignity, should be shunned, not saluted. Government coercion is not necessary or required. We can elevate the level of discourse by simply voting with our dollars and refusing to give boorish behavior an audience. It is not being prudish or puritanical to acknowledge that the level of discourse in America has sunk so low that it amounts to little more than name calling and the slinging of insults.
We do well to ask ourselves what kind of culture we want to live in. The words used on radio and television shape the culture, and even people who choose not to consume degrading entertainment must live in a culture that is heavily influenced by it. Dehumanizing words lead to dehumanizing actions, which in turn can lead to suffering and sorrow. Remember Terry Schiavo? She was declared a "vegetable", and when the label stuck, it became acceptable to starve and dehydrate her to death.
Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can create wounds that are even more severe. After these difficult weeks, let us dedicate ourselves to a cultural vision that celebrates human dignity and worth.