By Donella Meadows
–July 18, 1996–
The painters arrived, set their radio on the lawn, switched it on, and went up their ladders to scrape the second floor.
The program they were beaming through the beautiful summer day was Don Imus. I didn’t know that at first, because I’d never heard Don Imus. I’d heard OF him, but I thought you could only HEAR him in New York or Washington or some other urban den of iniquity.
So, OK, I lead a sheltered life.
Working in the yard, I was aware of radio chatter, background noise, easy to ignore. Then a song came on. Songs are catchy; they make you stop and listen.
It was a folksy tune, a cheery-sounding male singer, and the most awful stream of anti-Semitism I had ever heard. My jaw dropped. They can’t really broadcast stuff like this, can they?
Apparently they can. The ditty went on to assert that if there’s anything worse than a Jew, it’s a black. Up on their ladders the painters whistled along.
I don’t get angry easily, but when I do, it’s as if white-hot magma starts rising from my toes and erupts through the top of my head. Before I knew what I was doing, I stomped over and snapped off the radio. I barely repressed an urge to heave it into the bushes.
“Hey!” came a cry from the top of a ladder.
“That’s hate talk,” I said through clenched teeth. “I will not have it anywhere near my house.”
“It’s not hate talk. It’s comedy!”
“It’s NOT FUNNY!” I shouted. “Six million people died because of talk like that! If you want to keep working here, the radio stays off!”
“Cheese, it’s going to take us twice as long to paint this house without the radio.”
Later, after I calmed down, I thought I’d better explain to the head of the painting company — and be sure that his estimate would hold even if it took twice as long to paint the house. “But half the Valley listens to that program,” he said, bewildered about the fuss.
“Not this half,” was all I could think to say. There was too much surging inside me to get any more out. These are good guys, my neighbors, not haters, just looking for something to occupy their minds while they do a tedious job. Part of me felt guilty for cutting off their entertainment; another part felt guilty for not assembling them in a circle and delivering a stern lecture on the insidiousness of jokes made at the expense of other people.
What I did instead was brood. What should I have done? What can we say to the easy-going folks who think it’s funny to demean others? What’s likely to happen to a nation that broadcasts that kind of talk every day to “half the Valley”?
I’ve had this problem since the days when Dartmouth alumni thought it was cute to have fake Indian “mascots” strutting around doing foolish things at football games. I couldn’t get across to frat members why I was not amused by obscene jokes about women. I couldn’t convice the kids on the Dartmouth Review staff that it was beyond the bounds of journalistic ethics to taunt gay students and black professors in print.
Lighten up, they said. Quit spoiling our fun.
They developed a label for fussbudgets like me — PC, politically correct — which let them make a whole new round of jokes, not only against Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals, the poor and the handicapped, but also against anyone who defended them. People in power started doing that too. Then owners of radio stations discovered they could make millions broadcasting sick humor to folks who would listen mindlessly.
And mindlessly idle gangs burn black churches. Mindlessly urban punks beat up gays or Jews. Mindlessly folks elect politicians who unfailingly distribute costs and benefits along racist lines. Mindlessly the German people laughed at jokes about Jews and the Serbian people listened as the regime of Slobodan Milosevic broadcast hate-talk against the Bosnian Muslims.
Hey, lighten up. The painters in your yard are not going to commit genocide.
Of course they aren’t. But even if the hate talk never gets that serious, it hurts people. If someone in my yard punched someone else, I would intervene. Shouldn’t I do the same if the punch is verbal? Shouldn’t politicians who, I am told, actually appear on the Don Imus show, be ashamed of themselves? Shouldn’t a society, even one that believes in the beautiful principle of free speech, forbid broadcasts of messages that deride certain subsets of people? Isn’t hate-talk as bad as, if not worse than, sex-talk, or treason-talk or falsely yelling fire in theaters? In all those cases we wisely insist that the right to free speech is linked to responsibility for the consequences.
I suppose I didn’t have to forbid the radio to the painters entirely, but I was worried about other programs like that one. So we had a blessed silence. The painters did a good job, too, and on time. I hope they used the quiet to do a little thinking. With all the kinds of fun you can have in this world, why choose that kind?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996