Saturday, April 14, 2007

On the Verge

On the Verge

I’m on the verge of cancelling my cable television—at least for a “summer hiatus” and not solely out of spite for the fact that Coronation Street has been usurped for the hockey playoffs.

What exactly is a verge? Something like a curb? But we use it as if it means an edge. So, my Webster’s says, a verge is: a rod, wand, or stick carried at the beginning of a procession. Nope. The edge, brink, or margin of something. OK. The line, border, boundary enclosing something, especially something inside the circle. OK.

This week on cable television CNN the big American story is “Shock Jock Don Imus Fired for Shocking Words”. A shock jock is by definition a disc jockey who tries to be edgy, to push the boundaries. But rather than pushing the boundaries of thought, they seem to make a virtue out of pushing the boundaries of taste. Like the attention-seeking neediness of an adolescent class clown, these guys (all right, there are a couple of gals in there too, like Dr. Laura and Ann Coulter), these commentators see which powerless person or group they can insult today and how much that will increase their ratings with their listeners. Imus, about whom I would never have heard if he hadn’t been a guest on Larry King, insulted a women’s basketball team with comments, ripped from hip-hop lyrics, that were racist, sexist, ageist, and elitist. (He was laughing at their skin colour, their tattoos, their hair, their looks, and their assumed sexual availability). The media debate is about where the line is and did he cross it. About whether the line shifts depending on which race you belong to. About the unintended effects upon the victims of the so-called jokes--“These girls didn’t need this stress at exam time when they should be celebrating a great basketball year”. About being a good person but doing a bad thing (Imus’ defense). About being fired from two networks, CBS & MSNBC, for doing what he has been hired and paid to do for years. (Imus was fired after the protest from Black American media people prompted advertisers to pull out, not because of any ethical guideline or verge of decency or human dignity he crossed.) Finally, the media debate is about corporations making billions of dollars selling the same words to white teens buying hip-hop music.

This is such an American story, reflecting adolescent attitudes and focussing on celebrity and personality rather than on anything important. The shock jock phenomenon puts “freedom of speech” above all other American freedoms. In Canada, our values and our laws are different. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms (celebrating twenty-five years this week) guarantees freedom of opinion and freedom of expression but it also guarantees equality and the protection of human dignity. It stresses that tolerance defines a multi-cultural country. In the same way the Charter makes it illegal for any one group to pass a law which would take away the human rights of another group, so too we expect that no individual, no matter how much he or she wags about ‘free speech’, would be allowed to disparage the human dignity of another individual or group (with one exception, if it is said in parliament). We expect people to be tolerant and respectful. We expect that, if a person is prejudiced and the prejudice leads them to discriminate against others, they will not be allowed to do so while holding public positions of authority. We do not encourage the public expression of intolerance and prejudice (perhaps Don Cherry is an exception); we do not seek out or encourage the public expression of unprocessed anger (with the exception of those television stations which specialize in sticking microphones in the faces of grieving victims). We have laws against hateful speech.

Laws of libel and slander are similar in both countries; lawsuits are only successful if it can be proven that the ‘free speaker’ INTENDED to cause harm. Intending to cause harm is not the same as intending to grab media attention to increase your ratings and to bring in more advertising dollars by seeming outrageously ‘free’. Does free speech mean freedom without responsibility to others? Does it mean the freedom to pursue the almighty dollar no matter who gets hurt? Does it mean the freedom to perpetuate the worst of the way we used to be--hierarchical, patriarchal, sexist, ageist, and “other”-phobic? Not in Canada, please. I can exercise the freedom to change channels or to sever the cable completely.

Webster lists seven noun definitions for verge, covering everything from watch-making and roofing to feudal law. And the verb to verge means to lean towards, to be in transition, to approach. And a verger is the person who carries the verge. The word arrived into English through Old French from the Latin for twig, virga. So this is the best reason of all for cancelling cable. All those untended virgas all over my lot, and all the sprightly dandelion greens hiding beneath them. And the glorious spring smell. Here in BC they call it the balm of Gilead, which is a fancy name for the smell of cottonwoods in spring, when they exude resin. It is so beautiful, it feels as if I’m on the verge of bursting with too much pure pleasure.

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