'They did it first' not an excuse

A lot of offensive people are handsomely rewarded every day in America: Howard Stern, Rosie O'Donnell, Jerry Springer, Snoop Dogg and the list goes on.

In this pond, Don Imus actually is a small fish. In spite of what happened to Imus this month, I think we owe him some gratitude for raising the conscience level of the discussion over race, and for raising the consciences of all communities to the fact that words are not inconsequential.

As I consider the reverberations from Imus' racial slur against the Rutgers University women's basketball team, I'm concerned that we have created a society built around revenge and retaliation rather than a society of what is right and just. It requires no character or integrity to seek revenge. Character shines in justice.

I've heard all the arguments. When things like this happen, we tend to justify bad behavior by pointing to others engaged in similar behavior. It's the old schoolyard "he did it first" defense. In attempting to defend their own feeble attempts at humor and discourse, Imus and his few defenders pointed to gangsta rappers who get away with slurs every day.

If we don't agree that both sides are wrong, then we've learned nothing from the past two weeks.

Some have anointed the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson as spokesmen for the entire black community. These two men, who've never met a television camera they didn't love, have defended gangsta rappers while attacking Imus. It is important that they not be anointed as singular "black spokesmen." I believe the black community as a whole does not defend the hip hop culture of violence and disrespect. I've been saying this for some time.

Bill Cosby was raked over the coals for speaking up for higher standards among blacks. Johnnetta Cole, the former president of Spelman College and current president of Bennett College, and a woman with great stature in the black community, wrote a wonderful essay in the March 2007 edition of Ebony magazine titled "What hip-hop has done to black women."

In this piece, she wrote: "Given the negative messages that are pervasive in some of the music, fashions and lifestyles that are associated with the gangsta form of hip-hop culture, we must ask ourselves what this means for the future of our young women and men, for their chances of building healthy relationships and, ultimately, for building strong black families. If we are truly concerned about the state of black families and the strength of black communities, we cannot continue to allow hateful words and images to go unchallenged."

Juan Williams and Shelby Steele, two highly respected writers, have expressed similar views.

Jackson and Sharpton are not the sole voices of the black community. Many in our community agree with Cosby, Steele, Cole, Williams and Watts. But most of those voices do not have the stature to call news conferences or beat up major corporations for their causes.

When people say stupid things about other people, it's usually because they don't have a lot of contact or context with such people. Rappers don't know many whites. Liberals don't hang out with conservatives. Conservatives don't go to dinner with liberals. I wonder how many black women Imus has actually been around in his life. Of the millions who once listened to him, how many are black?

For such a worldly man, I'm not sure Imus has much of a world view.

Having said all this, I think we're missing a larger opportunity if this debate is only about Imus. He has apologized and lost his job. Now what?

We must recognize that free speech comes with responsibility.

Shock jocks say shocking things to jolt you. Imus did -- and got jolted himself. His advertisers cut and run. Considering all the things he has said in the past, why hadn't they fled long before?

All blame shouldn't be put on Imus for saying what he said. He was empowered by advertising dollars that disappeared when the heat was on. If he had not been given a platform, he could not have said what he said. Now that his sponsors have cut and run, they want us to believe they are outraged. Give me a break.

I continue to be shocked at how many try to defend Imus by saying, "They did it first." We will never raise the standard for discourse in America if we see these incidents through the prism of black, white, Republican, Democrat or "He did it first." Only when we see through the prism of right and wrong will we raise our cultural standards.

J.C. Watts (JCWatts01@jcwatts.com), chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group, is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. His column appears twice monthly.