Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hate Speech Versus Tasteless Speech

The controversies over the remarks made by Kelly Tilghman and Dana Jacobson are blurring a very important line between hate speech and tasteless speech. Hate speech is a very serious matter and should be denounced without hesitation; tasteless speech should be evaluated in the context that it was delivered and reacted to accordingly. In case you missed it, Tilghman is the Golf Channel announcer who joked that the only way other golfers could stop Tiger Woods is to "lynch him." No one who watched what she said could possibly for one moment believe that she supports lynching Woods or anyone else; the phrase she chose is in horrendously bad taste but was not said with malicious intent. Tilghman clearly made a poor attempt at humor and she laughed as she was saying it. Jacobson is the ESPN anchor whose comments about Notre Dame and Touchdown Jesus at a roast for Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg reportedly have earned her a one week suspension by the network. As Greg Couch of the Chicago Sun-Times notes, there is some disagreement over exactly what she said--and there is a big difference between cursing about Touchdown Jesus and cursing about Jesus. What Jacobson has in common with Tilghman is that she made a very poor attempt at being funny.

Tilghman's faux pas happened on live television, while Jacobson's took place at a private roast. There is no question that both sets of comments are tasteless, stupid and not funny. However, when misguided attempts at humor are treated as if they are on the same level as actual hate crimes we run the risk as a society of completely losing perspective on what is really important. Tilghman and Jacobson both deserve to be reprimanded by their employers for poor judgment. However, it is ridiculous and repugnant for a longtime race baiter like Al Sharpton to use the Tilghman situation as a soapbox--the same Al Sharpton who perpetrated the Tawana Brawley hoax, incited the destruction of Freddy's Fashion Mart in Harlem and whose inflammatory rhetoric played a big role in the anti-Jewish attacks that took place in Crown Heights in 1991 in the wake of a tragic car accident that killed a seven year old boy. Sharpton's initial statement about Tilghman referred to her by the wrong gender, so it is a safe bet that he never even saw what she actually said, which means that there is no way that he could have placed it in its proper context: she was joking. The joke was not funny--in fact, it was completely inappropriate. However, to make Tilghman the poster child for racism in America is to overlook and not address actual, legitimate concerns.

Jacobson's ill advised attempt at being the female Don Rickles is even less newsworthy: crass comments are the norm at roasts and are regularly uttered on any number of cable TV comedy shows. That does not make it right--and maybe that is something we need to address as a society--but Jacobson's main "crime" is that she is not funny. Couch rightly points out that it is very worrisome that so much bile is being directed at Jacobson despite the fact that there has yet to be confirmation of whether or not she in fact even defamed Christianity or if she directed her jibe at Notre Dame football; this is yet another case of the media not letting the facts get in the way of a "good" story. People are literally protesting in the streets because ESPN has not fired Jacobson yet there is no definitive report about what actually took place at the roast.

While the media runs amok with the Tilghman and Jacobson stories, the real racists in America are delighted that the spotlight is not on them. All of the extra attention and anger being directed at Tilghman and Jacobson are worse than the proverbial sound and fury signifying nothing: they are serious impediments toward dealing with real problems; every minute devoted to this nonsense is one minute that has not been spent thinking about, exposing and confronting truly virulent hate speech and the violent actions that result from it. If you think otherwise, then ask yourself two questions: How exactly will society benefit if Tilghman and Jacobson are fired? Would you like for your career to be defined by the worst attempt at humor that you have ever made?

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