About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Enough time (a couple of weeks) have passed since the firing of Don Imus by CBS over his idiotic remarks on the Rutgers women basketball team to be able to think about the whole affair with some perspective.

I watched Imus a few times, and could never understand why he was there to begin with. Yes, he was better than, say, Bill O'Reilly, but still, don't we have smarter and funnier people to turn our airwaves over to for several hours every day?

I also don't care for crude remarks of any kind, let alone misogynistic or racist ones. Nonetheless, I couldn't help having been both amused and a bit frightened by the whole media storm over Imus. Let us begin with the self-righteous Al Sharpton, always ready to jump on the latest offense to “his people,” but who – as New York Times commentator Frank Rich pointed out – still has to apologize for a blunder he committed back in the 1980s (the Tawana Brawley case, similar to the more recent Duke lacross incident). I guess I just don't like self-righteousness, it smells too much of religious or ideological bigotry.

Second, a couple of boos to CBS for attempting to get credit for nothing less than helping to catalyze a cultural change by firing Imus. As all but the most na├»ve among us know, the decision was a purely economic one, with CBS simply looking at how much advertising revenues they were going to lose as a result of the uproar. If CBS wanted to bring about cultural change, may I suggest a complete rethinking of their daily lineup of shows? (I mean, they are currently looking for contestants for “Big Brother,” for crying out loud.)

Lastly, shame on all those liberals who quickly joined the stoning frenzy. As Rich again pointed out, the only answer to idiotic speech is intelligent speech, not censorship. When one starts down the latter road, one immediately gets Tom DeLay (of all people!) asking for the firing of Rosie O'Donnell on the ground that she offends conservative Christians and – God forbid – the Thief-in-Chief himself. I still ache from when ABC fired Bill Maher over his post-9/11 comments, which were right on target but hurt some people's sensitivities.

More broadly, it is time for this country to get off the bizarre notion that people have a constitutional right not to be offended. Not only is that not the case, but – quite the contrary – the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America actually guarantees anybody's right to offend whoever, at will. It's not that calling women and minorities names is a nice thing to do, it isn't. But it is much more dangerous to those same women and minorities, as well as to the rest of us, if we silence people just because someone gets offended. And by the way, I'm deeply offended by Bill O'Reilly's outrageous stupidity, can Fox please fire his ass by lunchtime? Thanks.


  1. I have often wondered, long before all this brouhaha came out, why race on race violence or remarks are kind of "okay", but anything else is cause for all out war...

    My theory is ... if we don't generally love ourselves (in a healthy way, not, of course, in an arrogant way) how can we attempt to procure respect for anyone else of the our same race?

    I suppose in the more obvious sense, the degrees of separation are more defined. And we all do appreciate certainty SO MUCH especially when it comes to our prejudices. ;)


  2. Frankly, sir, I am offended that you do not accept my belief in my right not to be offended by any ideas that can manage to penetrate my bubble of obliviousness. I am also deeply offended by your offensive tendency to point out hypocrisy with no apparent inclination to protect my delicate sensitivities.

    Cease and desist, or I will shall call several major media outlets and protest outside your office tomorrow morning!

  3. Massimo,
    Why this Imus affair flared up when it did, I have no idea. The guy has a long documented history of bigoted comments.

    I completely agree with you that people do not have a right to not be offended. And of course we have 1st ammendment rights of free speech.

    However, calling for CBS to fire a bigot also falls under those 1st ammendment freedoms. CBS also has a right to ignore those people calling for the firing. Advertisers have a right to ask the question "Do I want my product or services associated with these comments?"

    As far as I know, nobody asked the government to force CBS to fire Imus. If that was the case, and if the goverment gave them any heed, then we should be concerned about 1st ammendment freedoms. But that was not the case.

    What should have happened along time ago is that relatively respectable journalists, politicians, and other media personalities should have declined to go on bigot Imus' show. But they did not have the backbone or principle.

    Lets face it, a person can't say fuck, shit, damn, or cock on the radio either, and the government does say so. Maybe those words should be permitted on the public air waves, maybe not. But their prohibition doesn't really curtail free speach of any substantive content.

    Imus has not had his freedoms of speach curtailed. He is free to take his talents to any other radio station. Poor guy will probably just have to talk for alot less money and reach alot fewer people. Boo hoo!

    And look at it this way. If we can clear the airwaves a little bit of mindless, empty, trash talk, then maybe CBS will contract to air Point of Inquiry or something like that. We can ask. And they have the freedom to ignore us.

  4. It may be that there should be some limitations on free speech, but the right not to be offended would certainly be a poor criterion. One reason is that there is just no telling what will offend people.

    A classic example is provided by the OJ Simpson trial, where Johnnie Cochrane offended his team leader Robert Shapiro by using Hitler as a rhetorical club. He made no favorable references to Hitler whatsoever, in fact treated him as a demon. But in raising Furman to the same demonic status, he offended Shapiro. I guess I can understand why when I think about it, but I doubt if most people could have predicted it.

  5. I totally agree about your comments about Al Sharpton, who has been essentially exonerated for his involvement with the scandalous Tawana Brawley mess. All this attention he is getting only gives him credit he really doesn't deserve, let alone merit.
    And as for Imus, he was outdated a long time ago and needed to get out of broadcasting.

  6. Good post, MP.

    I read another good analysis of the Imus affair, by Shelly Palmer. He focused on the role of technology. A few years ago, this whole thing wouldn't have happened. It's just so easy to disseminate information and media right now.

    Anyway, it's worth checking out:
    "Imus in a Techno-Political World"


  7. Did you see the article on Imus? http://www.michaelellenbogen.com/Frames/tips.html
    Who does this person think he is? Talking about us like that. I hope someone puts this on U Tube and MySpace. The book looks good…..

  8. For those wondering why Imus suddenly got canned - one theory I've heard (though I honestly don't remember where) is that Imus erred in taking on college athletes - a sacred cow, if you will - young people playing for the love of the game and aiming at something better in life.

    Of course, the flip side of "why now? he's said worse" is that if you buy that, you can never stop anyone.

  9. s "Maybe those words should be permitted on the public air waves, maybe not. But their prohibition doesn't really curtail free speach of any substantive content."

    Being able to say anything one wants, aka. free speech, is a totally overrated thing. From early to mid teens I use to use way too much profanity (for a girl at least). I guess sometimes teens just have to test the concept of how badly they can provoke adults to insanity, but am not real sure why adults would need to do it. By 28, seems to me that most people have a fairly good working vocab, after all. They no longer have say things or fill in the blanks with: "like".. "like".. "like, ya know" and "yeah", all the time. :)

    As per the discussion at hand...in a dumbed down society, such as our own and a few other European, affluent societies, legit. content is superseded any old thing that may happen to catch and hold the attention span for over 15 seconds.

    Seems that when people are generally bored by their existence, meaningful "content" and or REALLY SAYING SOMETHING is not ever going to become a point well taken.

    how sad.

  10. Free speech is overrated, is it, Cal? Spoken like a true theocrat.

  11. The say a major network will be airing "Point of Inquiry" or such type of show is the same day when the USA elect a black atheist lesbian woman for president...


  12. I agree that any kind of censorship is a bad thing but am not sure you can censor it completely, for instance if we have a right to think what we want and say what we want do we also have a right to hear and see what we want.

    The nature of the ear and eye mean we cannot choose to hear or see something that we do not want to hear or see without prior warning.

    I guess my point is how do we stop the loudest person from dominating the discussion, if he is exercising his right to speak?

  13. In response to Sheldon, Imus is not actually a bigot. He entertains none of the attitudes represented by his comment. He was making a joke on the venacular used by BLACK men to refer to Black women.
    On the other hand, those of us who watch Imus are aware of his mysterious and frightening affection for country music and that should have been a tip off that one day he would go insane on the air.


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