Verdict on Imus: ‘Words Do and Words Act’

Posted: April 26, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Beau Cribbs

Forensics Team director and Communication professor Peter Pober approached the podium in the Johnson Center Cinema Tuesday afternoon and quoted Harvard communications lecturer J.L. Austin. He said, “Words do and words act.”

This became the basis for the 90 minute-long panel discussion titled “Who Can Say What to Whom?” organized by the Department of Communication and the Office of University Relations. The discussion was held in response to the recent controversy over the insensitive comments made by radio personality Don Imus about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.

On stage with Pober, who moderated the discussion, were panelists Paul Smith, professor of cultural studies; Robert Lichter and Mark Hobson, professors of communication; and Michelle Guobadia, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life at Mason.

Much of the discussion centered on the notions of language within a society and the appropriateness of certain language in certain contexts. Hobson said that “offensive hip hop terminology has become terms of endearment in some circles.” He also noted that although Imus was fired, “there is still much work to be done” in terms of racial and gender sensitivity.

Hip hop culture was discussed, with many on the panel agreeing it is a small piece of a larger social problem of a tendency to praise shocking or outrageous things. Lichter cited comedians from decades ago such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Guobadia summed up the point by saying, “When we glorify offensive things, don’t be surprised when someone repeats it on a radio show.”

Lichter also emphasized the socially understood limits of free speech in terms of “common sense and courtesy.” He noted that although the U.S. Supreme Court has made a point of upholding free speech to those who choose to use “ethnic slurs and four-letter words,” there are still social sanctions within what he called a “polite society,” a term whose definitions he admitted are ever-changing.

Others had a different take on the controversy. Smith asserted that the Imus situation “isn’t a free speech issue, but an issue of business commodity.” He claimed that Imus was dropped from MSNBC and CBS just as an unprofitable product would be dropped from a commercial line, calling it “business as usual.”

Pober concluded the discussion by emphasizing the importance of having open discussions that may give way to a larger dialogue within society. As he wrapped up the final question from the audience, Pober urged, “And with that, let the conversation begin.”

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