Marc Lamont Hill: For democracy's sake, suffer the knuckleheads

Posted: February 22, 2012

THE PAST FEW weeks have been a busy time for media critics. Recently, several high-profile people and organizations have been swept into media firestorms because of offensive remarks made in public.

Conservative MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan was fired for making anti-Semitic and anti-black comments in his bizarre new book, Suicide of a Superpower, an apocalyptic lamentation on the death of white-male Christian hegemony. Hip-hop magazine XXL was blasted for posting a video on its website by rapper Too Short offering advice to young boys about how to sexually exploit and abuse young girls. ESPN came under fire after unnamed editors used the word "chink" in a headline about Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese-American point guard for the New York Knicks. And CNN commentator Roland Martin was suspended after GLAAD became upset at his comments on Twitter that people should "smack the ish" out of any man who was excited by a David Beckham underwear ad, as well as a comment that a man in a pink suit should be visited by "TeamWhupDatAss."

While I understand the need for media activism, sometimes we go too far.

Don't get me wrong: Some things are clearly over the top and worthy of our outrage. In the case of ESPN, someone used a job as a space to hurl a hurtful racial epithet in full public view. Under such a circumstance, a firing seems necessary. Similarly, in the case of XXL magazine, posting a video advocating sexual violence against our daughters should result in the firing of the responsible parties, as well as other forms of restitution by Too Short and the parent company.

But things aren't always so simple.

Take Pat Buchanan, for example. There's no doubt that Buchanan has a long history of making bigoted and divisive comments. Personally, I have frequently found myself infuriated by his anti-Semitic and anti-black racism, as well as his paleoconservative politics. Still, despite my deep disagreement with Buchanan's politics, there's something deeply dangerous about firing people just because we don't agree with them.

If MSNBC wants to fire Buchanan because it wants to be an all-liberal all-the-time network, then fine. As a private company, it has every right to make such programming choices, even if it makes for boring TV. But to hire someone as a controversial pundit, only to fire him when his opinions cause controversy, is a wrongheaded strategy.

This strategy is even more problematic in the case of Roland Martin.

As an ally of the LGBT community and a supporter of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), I recognize the need to spotlight and challenge homophobia at every turn, especially with regard to issues of bullying and other forms of anti-gay violence. Furthermore, I agree that Martin's tweets were insensitive and homophobic, and warranted a full apology rather than the tepid one that he initially offered.

Still, before we throw Martin to the wolves, we must look at the greater context. First, Martin says that his comments were intended to mock the sport of soccer rather than gays and lesbians. Regardless of what people think of his beliefs or choices, Martin has never given us any reason to think that he's a liar. Second, contrary to what GLAAD has hyperbolically asserted, Martin's comments were not by any stretch advocating violence against gays. If they had been, I also would be advocating his firing. Rather, he was engaging in the type of hypermasculine trash talk that is common within the black community.

Third, if we look at Martin's full public record, we see that he is a staunch and consistent advocate of gay rights, even when his advocacy is at odds with his personal religious beliefs. Does that mean that Martin isn't homophobic? No. Does that bother me? Of course. But that doesn't mean that he should have been suspended and, one hopes, doesn't mean that he'll be fired.

To sustain our democracy, we must allow room for ideas and people who make us uncomfortable. We also have to be willing to create space for people to make mistakes, grow and heal. If not, we silence productive dialogue and squash dissent. We also end up in a world where people still believe crazy stuff. We just won't know who those people are.

Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of "Our World With Black Enterprise," which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at