In the 10 years since he was fired by CBS and dropped by MSNBC for making racist and sexist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, I’ve found myself thinking about radio host Don Imus a lot, and not because he’s the only white man of a certain age to have done something this horrifying and dumb since then. After all, Donald Trump won the presidency in part by employing a style of bigotry, defined by a worldview populated by “bad hombres,” “nasty” women and post-apocalyptic black neighborhoods, that was so cartoonishly backward that it wouldn’t have flown in fiction. And unlike Imus, who initially claimed he was trying to be funny, Trump is deadly serious.
Rather, I’ve found myself using Imus’s self-inflicted injuries as a kind of measuring tape whenever someone says something stupefying. I’ve written up so many of these incidents, and even when I don’t I find myself dutifully calculating the figures: How ugly was the remark? How dumb? How swiftly did the people speaking apologize, and how many qualifiers did they include in that apology? Did they offer to do something besides apologize? Was the apology accepted, by whom and on what terms? Have we really been going through these rituals for 10 years without making any intellectual progress on the larger issues that lie behind them?
Incidents that provoke widespread public ire take different shapes, from Justine Sacco’s Twitter joke about Africa and HIV to Pepsi’s ill-fated ad starring Kendall Jenner as a protester. But they generally reveal the same thing: that we do not agree on which ideas are reasonable and respectable, and which are beyond the pale or utterly ridiculous. In a country as large as the United States, and with a social and political history as complex as ours, we’re never going to reach lockstep ideological agreement on every possible point of contention. These flare-ups suggest, though, that we haven’t even been able to define a broad spectrum of acceptable public opinion or concur about how that spectrum might be expanded and contracted.
If this wasn’t difficult enough, it’s hardly the only task suggested by Imus’s self-defenestration.
Because people will inevitably wander outside even an established spectrum of reasonable ideas, we also need — and also lack — an accepted standard for apologies and redemptive work that someone who strays can use to repair his or her reputation. Over the years, a number of figures have established themselves as confessors whom sinners can seek out in times of trouble: Imus, for example, visited the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show as part of his penitential tour. For these figures to offer meaningful absolution, though, they need to be widely accepted as moral authorities rather than canny operators whose main knack is for boosting their own profiles.
The difficulty in anointing a spokesperson for an entire community is only one of the limitations that comes with attempting to rehabilitate a damaged reputation entirely through the tools of public relations.
Apologies come down to motivations. Imus’s second statement on the matter was comprehensive and forthright: He acknowledged that “we can understand why people were offended,” rather than suggesting that his critics lacked a sense of humor, and that “our characterization was thoughtless and stupid,” rather than implying that he had been misunderstood. But it was also his second statement, after an initial attempt to use the catch-all excuse that, essentially, rappers did it first and Imus was just repeating their words. So who was the real Imus? The first one, and the one who sued over his termination? Or the second one, who said all the appropriate things and took all the appropriate responsibility?
The thing about redemptive works — and I don’t mean celebrities writing checks to relevant charities while under fire — is that they don’t require this sort of assessment. Either you put in the time, or you don’t, and you do the work well, or you don’t. There are plenty of charities that could use volunteers, whether that means bodies down at a soup kitchen or a clothing-donation-sorting facility, or Brett Ratner donating his time to shoot a public service announcement campaign for GLAAD after making an anti-gay slur.
If our differences of opinion about what’s reasonable to say and what’s not and about how to redeem yourself after acting poorly only became an issue when someone like Imus or Daniel Tosh attempted what they claimed was comedy and fell dramatically flat, this chasm might be annoying, but not terribly consequential. As our most recent presidential election suggests, though, Americans seem to be wandering through dozens of overlapping but impermeable multiverses, with no clear way to unify us on the subjects of our national and personal ideals, or even the basic facts of our national condition. Ten years after Imus was fired and his show was canceled, our disagreements about what it means to be a decent person, and how to make meaningful recompense if you don’t behave like a decent person, seem more intense — and more consequential — than ever.