At last! Something for the media to get their teeth into! A racial slur, no less. And now it's all the news, all the time. Don Imus regrets. The Rev. Al Sharpton objects. Don Imus apologizes. Apologies rejected. Actually, it's not even much of a debate. If there's been a word of defense for the talk show host, I haven't heard it. And who would dare?
Okay, it was a hideous thing to say. The best thing I've heard or read about it from the plethora of commentators was Gwen Ifill's op-ed piece in today's New York Times, in which she castigates Imus on behalf of those girls he insulted so casually: they had worked too hard, she suggested, to achieve their moment of glory, to deserve this slap in the face from a self-important shock-jock like Imus.
Fair enough. The words he used may have been a casual aside in something that was intended as a comedy routine. They may, as Imus has been at pains to point out--have their origin in the commonplace black-on-black denigration of women in street talk and hip-hop lyrics. But their use suggested an unwarranted--and hugely arrogant--assumption on his part that he had somehow earned the right to use them casually, as he did, with a self-congratulatory chuckle, and without regard to any effect they might have on those who heard them.
There's a good reason for the Buddhist teaching on Right Speech, the third of the eight path factors in the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering. The principle of right speech includes "Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter," so I guess that Imus's remark falls squarely into the last three categories to be avoided: it was divisive, abusive, and certainly qualifies as idle chatter. Had Imus spoken in full consciousness of what he was saying, I'm sure the words would not have left his mouth.
Such wisdom in this Buddhist teaching. It's not hard to see how this not-right, careless act of speech brought suffering upon the man who uttered it, as well as those who were its target. His endlessly repeated, abject apologies throughout the day yesterday and again today have apparently done him little good. His detractors--and they are legion--are still after his hide. It might be useful, however, to point out that the principle of right speech should apply equally to them. If not abusive--and I guess it depends, here, on your understanding of what constitutes abuse--their words are unquestionably divisive. Good liberals and conservatives alike, everyone is quick to condemn a racist.
But if we're really intent on healing the wounds of racism, self-righteous finger-pointing is hardly the best approach. A good place to start might be the recognition of our own responsibility. When it comes to racism, we're all busy with denial: who, me? A racist? No, no, not me. I'm not a racist. I wonder if it's real honesty that promotes this knee-jerk denial, or true self-examination. The fact is, I know that there's a racist part in me. I've seen it. I have experienced it in my daily life. If I examine my actions and reactions without the blinkers of what I'd like to believe about myself, I have to cop to succumbing to some of those prejudices, preconceptions and stereotyping habits that are symptomatic of racist attitudes. It's not something that I'm especially proud of, but I'd be a damn liar if I denied it.
And what's good for the goose is surely good for the gander. It seems to me that all of us, black and white, would do well to start the healing, not with denial but with truthfulness and clarity about ourselves--an admission that is sadly lacking in today's debate, but which might prove a much-needed first step toward an exchange of Right Speech with each other. I'm not optimistic, though, that Buddhist wisdom will prevail over indignation and retribution in this particular scrap, nor that those involved will be able to let go of the attachment to outcomes that might allow a peaceable resolution. There's too much at stake.