Possibly we have gone too far. Beginning a generation or so ago Americans became touchy about racial, ethnic, and gender slurs -- even if they were only jokes. Now it is hazardous to utter a slur even in jest about members of another race, ethnic group, or -- as the sexologists might say -- sexual orientation. We all recall the furor around Don Imus when, pursuant to a cheap laugh, he uttered a rude reference to the black female basketball players of Rutgers. Imus was forced out of his popular radio show.
As an ardent defender of the First Amendment I opposed Imus's extinction. Yet this touchiness about slurs is not going to go away -- and in many cases should not. Often the slur betrays a deep contempt for others merely because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. Contempt is not a civilized value.
At any rate, given the intensity of our national touchiness over slurs, no group should be exempt from protection. Slurs are based on stereotypes, often misinformed stereotypes, and to allow one group to be slurred is to validate a stereotype. Oddly enough, two groups continue to be the victims of slurs in America, people of faith and Italian-Americans. For now all is quiet on the people of faith front, but an Italian-American group is making an issue of a slur recently broadcast on NBC. I actually heard a similar anti-Italian slur on a cable station while I was exercising at the gym a few weeks back. I wish I had had a pen handy. I would pass the details of the incident on to vigilant members of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, sponsor for decades of New York's Columbus Day Parade and other Italian-American heritage programs. They are now after NBC for failing to discipline the golf analyst, Johnny Miller.
During the U.S. Open, he slurred Rocco Mediate who was at the time strongly challenging Tiger Woods. As Mediate's tenacious play raised the possibility that he might win, Miller quipped: "Guys with the name of Rocco don't get on the trophy, do they?" Earlier Miller opined: "He's a character [Mediate] -- he looks more like guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool." Today in America no commentator would get away with making such remarks about the African-American Woods. Why should a commentator get away with such slurs on Woods's Italian-American opponent? For that matter, why would Miller even be thinking such thoughts? Italian-Americans have been top-ranked golfers since the days of the great Gene Sarazen.
On June 21 Miller issued an apology that made matters worse. He denied that his remarks had anything to do with Mediate's "ethnicity." That really roused the ire over at the Columbus Citizens Foundation. Citing the long list of commentators who have been suspended by their networks or fired for slurs, the Foundation insists that NBC do the same. The Foundation has a very good point. Are Italian-Americans less worthy of protection from slurs than other Americans? NBC should do the right thing and give Miller some time to think, and one of the things he might think about is how he might craft an apology free of further insults. A joke about the name "Rocco" has no ethnic bias? Mr. Miller, how stupid do you think your audience is?
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