Every once in a while, you hear something so offensive that it smacks you like a heat index of 102 when you step outside moments before a thunderstorm. And when you hear something like that, you probably take a moment to rant. This is the first moment I’ve had to rant about the following incident in writing, so please excuse my tardiness and indulge me nonetheless.
Offensive language smacked me last week when I heard Bill Lamb, the general manager of WDRB in Louisville, utter the following sentence in his nightly “Point of View” segment:
“Ms. Scott, if you can’t say something smarter than that, just shut up.”
His directive was to Councilwoman Attica Scott, who had recently published an op-ed in the Courier-Journal, and followed up with an interview on the Louisville Public Media show, Strange Fruit, about Michael Brown’s murder. Her comments reflected her experience as the mother of a black son and as someone who knows “what it is like to grow up with distrust and malice toward police officers.”
I found her op-ed and subsequent interview honest, thoughtful, poignant and fair. Predictably, Lamb did not. He justified his choice words by saying that “because [Councilwoman Scott] so rudely insulted police and embarrassed our community, I felt like I had to react to her words in a way that was strong also.”
(He also said that he hadn’t told anyone to “shut up” since he was a teenager, which is somewhat ironic, because saying it as a grown man and general manager of a television station was awfully sophomoric.)
Look, there is nothing wrong with having an opinion. There’s nothing wrong (beyond annoyance) of having an opinion that is wrong, uninformed, or displays a lack of reading comprehension skills. It is, however, inappropriate to use a position of power in the media to tell someone to shut up. “Shut up” is not an opinion; it is a command.
Now, why is a white man going on television to command a black woman to shut up? He could have given an opinion, something like, “I think Councilwoman Attica Scott added nothing but incendiary remarks when she said, ‘Police officers are paid by taxpayer dollars. The budget is approved by some local government to then pay these individuals to kill our babies.’ Her focus should be local, not on Ferguson, and as a city official, she should be on the same side as the police. Furthermore, if she’s so concerned about improving community relations with law enforcement, why lash out against them? She did her district a disservice.” That would have been an opinion. It would have been one of those annoying ones that displays a lack of reading comprehension skills, but an opinion nonetheless.
At any rate, Lamb didn’t do that. He said, “shut up.” He didn’t think about the racial or gender dynamics at play here. It didn’t cross his mind that “shut up” is disrespectful and in this case, misogynistic. He didn’t stop to think that his point of view would make him look like a scared white man so intimidated by a woman of color with power who demonstrates courage even when speaking honestly of her fears, that all he could think to say was, “Shut up.” He didn’t think he would resemble a child covering his ears and screaming to block out what everyone else is saying to him. He didn’t consider “shut up” a display of an abhorrent lack of empathy with the experiences of black people in this country, or how reflective his fear and lack of empathy are of everything that is wrong with the world.