Don Imus and the Categories of Speech

I’d like to talk today about the debate that has been raging in America for the last few weeks about the radio host Don Imus and the limits of acceptable humor and speech. I’ll start with our Torah reading for this week, which lends itself perfectly to what I want to say.

We are all horrified by the savage murders at Virginia Tech. But I’m not going to speak about that event right now, partly because this is a joyful morning when we celebrate a new stage in the life of a wonderful young woman, and partly because we are still working through what happened in Blacksburg Virginia. I’ll talk about these issues next week. Instead, I’d like to talk today about the debate that has been raging in America for the last few weeks about the radio host Don Imus and the limits of acceptable humor and speech. I’ll start with our Torah reading for this week, which lends itself perfectly to what I want to say.

The name of the second sedrah for today is Metzorah. It means “leper” or one with a terrible skin disease. Now I’m not saying that skin diseases aren’t important, but in Jewish tradition over the centuries, rabbis chose to play on the word metzorah and say that it really means motzi shaym rah, which means to bring out an evil name on someone by saying something bad about them. So for literally a couple of thousand years, rabbis have given sermons on this Shabbos not about the treatment of lepers but against gossip and saying nasty things about each other.

I’m a lucky rabbi because I have people in the congregation who actually listen to my sermons and ask questions about them. So if today I would say that metzorah means gossip, some intelligent person would come up to me after the service and quietly and respectfully ask me how I could say that metzorah means gossip when it really means leper. And I would answer that I never said that metzorah means leper; I said that the ancient rabbis played on the word metzorah so that they could talk about gossip. What often separates an Orthodox Jewish sermon from a Conservative sermon is that Conservative rabbis are careful to distinguish between a midrashic or sermonic interpretation and what the Torah really says. It’s okay to base a sermon on an interpretation as long as you say what you’re doing and don’t pretend that you are giving a literal reading of the Torah. But you have to say: This is the kind of talk I’m giving.

If I were teaching a class on the Torah, I would talk about metzorah as leper and never go near the subject of gossip.

This careful distinction is important because there are different kinds of speech. There is a sermon, which is trying to draw a moral or spiritual lesson, and there is a class, where the Torah should be interpreted for what it actually means.

People have a right to challenge you if you do not tell them what kind of speech you’re doing. If their expectation is one thing, and you give them something else without explaining, they have right to be confused or even upset.

Now I can talk about Don Imus. For decades, Imus has been talking for hours on the radio, five days, a week, saying shocking things. He became famous as something called a shock jock. If you listened on any given day to Imus, you could hear speech that was clearly and unmistakably racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic clergy, anti-Hispanic immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-politician, anti-heavy people; on any given day. You could also hear interviews with important politicians and government leaders. You could hear about charity efforts for kids with cancer. Recently, before this became a national issue, you would have heard Imus screaming about the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. Lately, you would have heard about a campaign against autism. Imus had taken a lead role in working on bill to help children with autism; he did a lot to raise public awareness about these kinds of issues. At the same time, he never stopped the shock-jock humor that slurred all of the groups I mentioned.

And then Imus said a terrible thing about some young African-American female athletes, and the outcry was so loud that he was fired from television and radio.

There was a reaction to Imus’ remark that got him fired, and then there was a reaction to that reaction. Everybody has been talking about this; everybody has an opinion.

What I want to emphasize today is something about categories of speech. I want to say that Imus’ fundamental mistake was that he was blurring the lines. Shock jocks eventually always get fired because they go over some arbitrary and always changing line. To do shocking humor is one kind of speech. If I turn on the television show South Park or watch the movie Borat or listen to just about any comedian in any nightclub, I personally will be shocked. I’m a prude who doesn’t think that sex and natural functions are a good subject for humor. But America loves shocking humor; that’s what Americans seem to think is funny. America loves dirty jokes, and bathroom jokes, and fat jokes, and gay jokes, and racial humor. I don’t think it’s funny to generalize or categorize people. If anyone, Jewish people should know that such generalizations lead to horrible things. In my own life, I will not only not tell any such joke, not a Polish joke and not a blonde joke, but I will not even listen to such a joke. And if you tell me one, I’ll charge you five dollars for charity for making me hear it. But if I turn on a show or watch a movie or listen to a comedian with such humor, I should expect to be shocked. Apparently, just about everybody else besides me loves such humor. Which tells me that at least some of the critics of Imus are just plain hypocrites.

What Imus failed to understand was that you can’t become an active participant in the political process and still crack horrible, crude and insensitive jokes. Imus wanted to have it both ways, to be who he had been and who he was becoming. He wanted to use the humor to get people to listen to the important things he wanted to say. He talked openly and often about his own wretched past but also talked about his life now, about his loving marriage with a woman he admires and his family life with a son he cherishes. Sophisticated and experienced listeners could separate the humor from the satire, the pseudo-bad guy who didn’t mean the racism and the nasty humor from the truly good guy who parented kids with cancer on his ranch. But it turns out that for many others, it was sometimes confusing to listen to him. And those people became a mob.

So what’s the lesson? Watch what you say. And if you’re kidding around, make sure you say that you’re kidding around. You don’t have to be a humorless prig like me who is so uptight that he won’t listen to most of the jokes that are told these days. 

But you have to be careful that you know, when you joke, or when you speak, who your audience is, and what they’ll understand, and if you are the speaker it is your responsibility to say what kind of speech it is.

All of us, adults and kids alike, have hurt others by saying the wrong thing. And most of the time, we didn’t mean it badly, we were just kidding around. Imus changed his life by saying something he didn’t mean. There was no reason to say it. But he’s been cracking thousands of jokes like this for many years, and all of a sudden one remark became a life-changer. That’s all it takes; one remark. Some of us can tell you, from hard experience, that just one remark can change your life forever.

So the rabbis, in their interpretation of metzorah, were right, in their way; evil speech can be like a disease. But this is a disease that we can prevent ourselves from contracting and from spreading to others.

Please be careful in what you say. Please be careful who you kid around with and what you say. And try, try harder, not to say nasty things about groups of people. At the very least, separate what you think is funny from what you mean seriously. 

And don’t judge others so harshly. We’re not so perfect; we make plenty of mistakes, especially in what we say. Let’s give each other a break.