By Richard Neer
WFAN, New York
Talk Show Host
NEW YORK — I rarely have a problem with “political correctness.” I believe that avoiding words or phrases that even a small minority find offensive, is a good thing. Why hurt people because we are insensitive or too lazy and set in our ways to change? It’s easier just to amend our vocabulary and apologize when necessary. Using racial or sexist epithets to make a point is not acceptable and these words should bear consequences. WEEI and Sirius have recently dealt with those situations.
What I do fear is that a “gotcha” mentality is running amok, looking to punish anyone who has the temerity to take an unpopular stand. Recent examples are Mark Cuban and Stephen A. Smith.
In Cuban’s case, he was honest about his own shortcomings, illustrative of the fact that we all have prejudices. He made it very clear that he thought society would be better off if we could rid ourselves of these destructive impulses but that we are not there yet, despite all the progress made so far. He used himself as an example, citing how out of concern for his safety, he would avoid characters who dressed like thugs. He implied that if we are honest with ourselves, we might all admit to the same feelings.
A media storm followed. But since Cuban owns an NBA franchise, only Adam Silver and other owners have the power to punish him directly. But should he be punished at all for attempting to advance the dialogue on race? As a billionaire, what stake does he have in this except, dare I say, altruism and enlightenment?
Then we have the case of Smith. Headlines screamed that he was defending spousal abusers by blaming the victim. As the initial flurry ensued, he took pains to explain that he meant no such thing, but that he should have used his words more precisely. His employer defended him at first, but then gave in to pressure and suspended him. Apparently his numerous articulate apologies weren’t enough.
So what message do we take from this? That there’s no gain in examining any controversial issue involving race, women or sexual orientation in depth? If you are rich or so important to your workplace that you are immune from reprisal, you can withstand the storm but if you are a mid level (and therefore replaceable) commentator, you risk your career if a comment is not judged to be politically correct?
Often, the spontaneity of a live debate does not allow for carefully crafted statements that ward off any chance of ambiguity, or that can’t be taken out of context. But the moral arbiters who look into your soul would have you believe that they can see darkness better than you can, so watch out! Does this make for intelligent constructive dialogue or does it force us to be so cautious that we only spout inoffensive platitudes?
Let’s dissect what Smith said. Apparently, he did not make it clear enough that under no circumstance should a man strike a woman, even though if you watch the entire clip, he repeats this truism several times. But was his suggestion that a woman be careful about further provoking an incendiary situation — when there are so many Neanderthal men in the world — bad advice? For your own safety, try to avoid these situations, even though the man ultimately is fully culpable? Is this kind of caution, which fathers frequently give to daughters, so poisonous as to ruin a man’s career? Especially if he takes great pains to explain himself more fully that same day?
The quote attributed to Voltaire about disagreeing with what you say, but defending your right to say it, shouldn’t apply just to government, but to employers as well. And if the self appointed guardians of our public discourse object, it is our duty to stand firm and take the heat. Otherwise, commentators on the front line will become so timid that progress will cease on issues of race, religion and sex. People will keep their evil thoughts to themselves while continuing their evil deeds.
Richard Neer is a sports talk show host on WFAN, New York and a regular contributor to TALKERS. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.