Losing our humor: Speech, consequences and throwing stones

At the end of 2019, Don Imus died. For almost 50 years, he was one of those people media outlets like to call a “controversial radio talk show host.” When Howard Stern entered the picture, that moniker turned into “shock jock.”

Imus was good at his job. His job was to talk to a soundboard, engage people he couldn’t see, and keep listeners. He gave and raised money to help beat childhood cancer, but he also taunted a lot of people, frequently in a mean-spirited way. Certainly not everyone was upset to see him go.

In 2007, he called the Rutgers women’s basketball team a bunch of “nappy-headed hoes.” It was more racist than jokey, given his history, previous and subsequent. In 1993, he’d called journalist Gwen Ifill, who was black, a “cleaning lady.” He used anti-Semitic terms to refer to Stern in 1984. When talking about former NFL player Pacman Jones’s arrests in 2008, he asked, “what color is he?”

Like all of us, he had some good, and some bad. He got fired a couple of times, but, as I mentioned, he was good at his job, and he always found a place to land.

This isn’t about Don Imus, though. It’s about talking, and, more specifically, the consequences of speech in an ever-more-public world.

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads thus:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Of course, there are limitations to each of these freedoms. You can’t sacrifice children, even if your religion calls for it. You can’t incite a mob to violence or make serious threats of violence, even though that limits speech. You actually have to get a permit in most places to peaceably assemble.

And remember, these are only legal freedoms. They have nothing to do with how the masses respond, rightfully or wrongfully.

I work for a collection of newspaper-affiliated websites. Most of the sites allow commenting on their stories, and some stories garner a lot of comments. Hundreds. Sometimes thousands. We try to keep an eye on comments, and disable comments that we feel violate our community rules. Those who violate them severely or repeatedly may see their accounts blocked for a day or pulled altogether.

Personally, I think our rules are clear and easy to understand. We reformatted a section of our user agreement to take out the legalese. Read them here:

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Ask: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

I don’t believe all comments need to be kind, but I do believe they shouldn’t be unnecessarily mean.

We are frequently accused of being opponents of free speech. When asked about free speech personally, I present these two caveats:

(1) Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences (i.e., say what you want, but you might get fired, kicked out of a restaurant, or punched in the face).

(2) Right to free speech does not mean right to a platform. Nobody is required to publish your book or make your movie, and our sites are not required to let you post whatever you want (and for that matter, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook can say farewell whenever they want; they’re all businesses that you don’t own).

Enter Chuck Bonniwell. You’re probably by now familiar with Bonniwell’s story, though you may have forgotten since it happened almost three weeks ago.

A talk show host for Colorado radio station KNUS, Bonniwell commented that we needed “a nice school shooting” to interrupt the House Donald Trump impeachment proceedings.

He and his co-host immediately knew it was the wrong thing to say. You can’t un-say things when the mics are live and so is the broadcast, but you can sure try to backpedal.

And this, obviously, was something there’s no backpedaling out of. Bonniwell was unceremoniously fired, which, of course, he should have been. It’s what happened next shows how far we’re falling.

Most people recognized this was a joke. Most people recognized it was a bad one. No one thinks Bonniwell shouldn’t have been fired. No one actually wants a school shooting.

Once upon a time, local radio was local radio. Only people listening would have heard about this. A story like this, maybe the local paper picks it up. Maybe the wire picks it up from there and it’s read and heard all over the country.

Maybe a few million people would get angry in the privacy of their own living rooms. But now with social media, not only can they get angry in the privacy of their own living rooms aloud for the world to see, they can tag Bonniwell and make sure he has an opportunity to know what they all think of him.


Based on this one misguided thing he said ‐ a thing he knows was misguided. It’s not even like he thinks it was a good thing to say. Seconds after it came out of his mouth, he knew it wasn’t funny, he was going to be fired, and for a while, he was going to be that guy that joked about a school shooting.

But no one is prepared for the entire world telling you you’re a bad person. Especially since most of the world doesn’t understand the difference between a bad person and a person who says a bad thing.

If a four-year-old hits a classmate, you don’t tell the four-year-old she’s a bad person. You tell her that hitting people is a bad thing to do. If you tell her she’s a bad person, it’s not long before she believes she’s a bad person only capable of doing bad things.

I know absolutely nothing about Bonniwell. I didn’t even listen to the clip. He might be a horrible human being, but probably not. He has a wife and he had a job at a place where other people work, in a decent-sized market, which means he probably had his start somewhere else.

But if, I don’t know — hundreds of thousands? millions? — of people on social media call him evil and bad and horrible, maybe he actually becomes those things. You say something to someone enough, they believe it.

Don Imus? Not exactly the picture of tolerance, but not everything he did was terrible. People are nuanced.

I remember the exact moment I became aware of the things we are now calling “cancel culture” and “virtue signaling.”

A PR representative named Justine Sacco flew to South Africa. She tweeted this: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

By the time she’d landed, she was trending on Twitter, with #HasJustineLandedYet. Someone came to the airport in Cape Town to take her picture to show she had, in fact, landed. She was fired from her job.

I took part in the piling on.

If you don’t know someone, it’s hard to tell on Twitter if they’re telling a joke, unless it’s super well-crafted. Or their bio actually identifies them as a comedian, or the account as a satirical account.

Obviously, that’s a terrible thing to say. But if you were a comedian, you could probably get away with it.

Cancel culture is the notion that, if you’ve ever said or done something awful, you are a horrible human being and you don’t deserve to ever have a job or a family or anything. There is no such thing as reform, as learning, or jokes.

Think James Gunn, the director who was fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise after someone pointed out some offensive, not-funny-anymore, decade-old tweets. He was later reinstated, because he’s good at his job and he doesn’t actually think rape is funny.

Or Kevin Hart stepping down as 2018 Oscars host after someone found some homophobic tweets from 2009 up through 2011.

You know, because people can’t evolve, ever. That’s not true, actually. Most people are constantly evolving. If you hold everyone up to who they were 10 or 20 years ago, you’ll never see who they are now.

Jon Ronson wrote a story for the New York Times about Sacco, and he later wrote a book about people who had been shamed publicly.

Virtue signaling, on the other hand, isn’t about the person who once said something bad, it’s about the person pointing it out. It’s a way to say, “I, too, am outraged by this.” When you post on Facebook about something most of your friends will agree with, you’re virtue signaling. When I piled on to #HasJustineLandedYet, I was virtue signaling.

I try not to do it anymore. If I’m tweeting angrily about something, I try to back it up with reasoned thought. If I can’t, I don’t tweet it, or I admit that I don’t know why I’m angry.

So what’s wrong with pointing out problem speech when we see it?

On the surface, nothing. But what happened to the days of pulling the offender aside and saying, “hey, that was kind of messed-up”?

What we do now is more akin to lining up, pointing our fingers at the offender and saying, YOU MESSED UP! and maybe tossing some rocks on your way out.

And much like the stoning scene in “The Life of Brian,” most of us do it anonymously or semi-anonymously.

The path forward

I’m not sure how much uglier our public discourse can get. I can’t remember the last time I saw a thoughtful discussion in an online textual forum. That might have something to do with how we read online. On a big screen (like a laptop), we read in an F shape — we read the first couple of paragraphs in full, then we scan down the beginning of subsequent paragraphs, occasionally reading a full line. That’s why a lot of long-form writing is broken up by so many photos and videos and lines, so that if you skip, say, seven or eight paragraphs, maybe you’ll pick back up for a couple here and there.

On a small screen (like a cell phone), we read as long as our attention lets us. Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.

And when we do read long-form, we tend not to respond in long form.

I think what’s going to happen, for the thoughtful, is a move away from social media as a forum. It will become more and more a marketing space. Podcasts, YouTube and IGTV are probably the future, although more than likely they’re the present, and I’m just behind. I mean, look at this here; I still write a blog. Most of the YouTube videos I watch are video versions of podcasts that I would be listening to on my phone if I weren’t sitting in front of the computer for work. I almost never turn the sound on for an Instagram video; I’ve never clicked through to “watch the full IGTV video.”

This sounds pessimistic, and it really is my view that we’re not in a great place. It’s also my view that, if we want this to change, we will need to alter our course significantly.

I also think it’s worth altering our course and fixing it. The thing about hard work? It’s hard. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Onward.


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