Acts and traits, rights and duties

Anything that gives us moral enlightenment from both Don Imus and Al Sharpton across a table from each other can’t be all bad, right? Seriously, while Imus doesn’t matter much, the whole episode gives us perspective on a pair of issues too often taken the wrong way. The first is a confusion of acts and traits, as in “anyone who could say that must be a racist/anti-semite/etc.” He is (Allen, Imus, Richards, whoever) but not on that evidence, and so are you and so am I. We are all hard-wired for xenophobia, racism, and a whole package of fears of ‘others’, and if you don’t believe it, go here and test yourself. We’re also hard-wired to lech after hot bodies. Fortunately, we’re also equipped with the capacity to learn to behave ourselves, but not always perfectly. If people are overall as bad as their worst selves we’re all in trouble.

Imus perhaps hasn’t learned some critical social skills, but has certainly been well-paid by society to not display them. Whether he’s more or less racist than the next person is invisible to us (though it’s fair to guess and opine, as he’s a public figure) and anyway not important; what’s important is what he does. I don’t think George Allen is a racist at heart in the sense that the trait predicts racist official behavior in office. I think he’s a jerk in many ways, but it would have been much better for Virginia and the rest of us if he had been defeated entirely on his political demerits and not for blurting out something it’s still not clear he really understood (or even for his smirking ignorant juvenile flirtation with a pseudo-lost-cause persona).

We need to stop shortchanging analysis of public figures by inferring traits from acts, and pay attention to the acts. In particular, we need to cut everyone some slack for blurting and careless speech. Atom-bomb sanctions for rudeness just make everyone afraid, because we know we’re only human and that we almost certainly can’t dissemble an angelic nature all the time. In a world where one careless utterance can ruin your life, the wise will just shut up, perhaps more quickly than the clueless, and that’s not good for anyone. Of course, Imus didn’t just blurt out something once; it’s a large part of his shtick. But his story is getting mixed up with cases that were slips and the kind of barely meaningful errors humans are prone to, especially when they’re tired, stressed, or scared.

Almost as wrongheaded has been the prattle about Imus and the gangsta rappers’ first amendment rights having something to do with this, usually winding up in the absurd proposition that they shouldn’t therefore be fired for their speech. This is really nuts: freedom of speech has to do with government not suppressing it, not that you have some right, enforceable against a merchant of discourse, to a microphone and a hall or broadcast. (There is, I need to add, a real issue of commercial suppression of speech by monopolist or cartel media outlets, and there is some moral duty of people in the printing and other media business to sell access fairly. As my father (a lefty printer) said when I complained about some very right-wing stuff he was printing in the fifties, “you don’t have freedom of the press if you can’t get to a press.”)

In the end, “sell” is the important thing here. Imus lost his show because he became bad for business; the piece-pimp-and-ho entertainers from whom he learned his potty-mouth language have theirs because they aren’t (yet). If we accept my proposition about acts and traits, what we have here is people playing parts and writing fiction, and we don’t need to psychoanalyze them personally to think about what they mean or what to do about them. Wagner was a really wretched person in many ways, but what matters is the work he put before us; because he was a genius, we will get smarter attending to that (including the parts that now seem odious). I think Tom Cruise is a nut case, but I’ll take his movies as movies. I don’t have a duty to buy tickets, but I do have a duty to not boycott them because I don’t like his politics or his scientology; otherwise, I’m just doing my bit to blacklist, that is to starve, people who have the wrong values or religion. Don’t like the act Imus puts out? Don’t listen, or listen and deplore it on your blog; it’s perfectly appropriate to try to persuade people to pass up this or that good by showing that it’s meretricious.

But don’t get on this self-righteous bandwagon of demanding that he be fired or silenced by his retailer if he still has customers, because what’s important about trashmouthed entertainers is precisely that they have an audience: a bunch of our fellow-citizens eat this stuff up and pay for it with time and/or money. Suppressing the performers by anything other than a market test drives the evidence of this very important sociopathy out of sight, and out of sight is not a good place for festering evil. What we need is harder work than bashing entertainers for the parts we hire them to play, or lying in wait to pile on them for a completely predictable slip that reveals a part of the brain we all share. It’s not Imus that indicates a need for some learning, it’s tuning in to his show on purpose knowing what it delivers, and the learning is not needed by the player on the stage but by the audience. Your kids listening to misogynistic violent music? You need to have a talk with them about why they do it and what it makes them look like. Snoop Dogg’s mommy and daddy apparently didn’t, but he’s not your problem; your kids (and your friends) are where your duties point.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.