I gave a couple of talks in a distant city a few weeks ago, one on each day of a two-day conference. That entailed being introduced several times, first as Goldfarb, then Goldberg. Everyone whose heritage diverges from this country’s uncannily persistent normative WASP-philia collides with prejudice on a regular basis. The garbling of my name? As my late grandmother used to say of my little bumps and bruises, “That should be the worst thing that ever happens to you.”
It’s true, I know. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t amount to much. But even though I try to let it slide, it rankles. The insult seems so elemental: don’t all of us deserve the dignity of being called by our right names? I may not be instantly able to wrap my tongue around some long and complicated names I encounter, but life isn’t so jam-packed that I can’t take a minute to ask for help. And my own name? C’mon, people: gold plus bard, two simple English words. How hard can it be?
Years ago, I had a friend whose name was an unusual variation on the more common Rosen. When he really got fed up with having the three short, phonetic syllables of his name mangled into something that interfaced more easily with the speaker’s ethnic stereotypes, he’d put on a pleasant smile and say, “That’s okay. Just call me Jew.” The underlying issue, of course, is a cold calibration of cultural status: Who and what you are is so negligible to me, the speaker seems to be saying, I can’t even be bothered to get it right.
This experience is what I would call prejudice lite. Now multiply it by a zillion: what if every time someone resembling you was depicted in the media, it was as some form of degenerate? I’d love it if this question were hypothetical, but all you have to do to verify it is turn on your TV.
Today’s New York Times carried a story about protests against executives of Viacom, owners of BET and MTV, by a group called Enough is Enough, started by Reverend Delman L. Coates and other church-oriented African American leaders.
Reverend Coates has put forth a sophisticated analysis of “sexist, racist and misogynistic images that offend and degrade black people.” He understands the centrality of culture in the quest for equality:
I believe that the public square is the next terrain of struggle in the African-American quest for justice and equality. Since the public square is an unregulated social space, there must be a voice that demands that the fundamental equality of black humanity be respected. If we fight for one playing field in corporate America and in academia, we should expect nothing less in the world of entertainment and media.
Enough is Enough wants media companies to adopt codes and standards “that include prohibitions on: racial and sexual slurs; the promotion of illegal activity like drug use; as well as content that ‘objectifies, degrades, or promotes violence against women’ or shows black and Latino men as pimps or gangsters;” and they want consumers to have a way to exercise the power of the purse, boycotting cable stations with programming they disapprove, rather than having to pay for them as part of preset bundles.
Some heavy-duty intellectuals have weighed in on the campaign, accusing Rev. Coates of advocating censorship, which he denies. As you’ll see from the Times piece, most of the discussion has focused on freedom of expression. On that narrow question, I’m with Julian Bond: “I believe everything is permissible in speech and imagery,” Mr. Bond said. “It doesn’t mean that I can’t object to it.”
But focusing on the censorship question misses the point, which is that the antidote to demeaning words and images is more, not less: more programming, more music, more diverse characterizations, so that what is objectionable fades into perspective, becoming roughly proportional to its incidence in real life. A work of fiction can portray a woman as a prostitute, a Jew as a rapacious landlord, an African American as a violent drug peddler, so long as the field of stories is planted with every other type of tale as well. That way, each and every cultural product doesn’t have to be treated as a mirror of reality and criticized if it fails to uplift. That way, there’s room for everything.
You could say the crime is corporate media’s depiction of black people as overwhelmingly socially marginal and dangerous, and that would certainly be true. But the larger crime is narrowing the range of possible stories in the commercial media so that very little that doesn’t fit those stereotypes is seen as profitable enough to be made, distributed, broadcast.
Years ago, I worked on a project intended to persuade PBS to allocate more airtime and resources to programming by independent producers of color. Talking to the Native American producers about their own experience was the starkest. “At least,” they said, referring to Hollywood’s proclivity to cast anyone in pancake in Indian roles, “the other groups get to play themselves.”
People whose life-histories and bloodlines don’t fit the corporate media’s norms have a too-small, too-distorted presence on television. Under current conditions, where a tight focus on the bottom line drives our most important cultural media, we probably can’t remove what’s objectionable without making that presence even smaller. The task is to expand it: when enough is enough, the antidote is more.