It can be hard to determine when a public figure has said something so offensive that he or she should be fired. But this much should be obvious: There has to be room in our public discourse for an honest statement, civilly expressed, even if it is prejudicial. NPR overreacted by dumping news analyst Juan Williams after he expressed personal nervousness on Fox News about boarding planes with Muslims who wear religious clothing.
Williams' comments were no doubt hurtful to Muslims, and ignorant as well. But they were not a fiery fomenting of hatred or a harangue against all Muslims in this country. They were open admissions of his own biases that reflect our society's tendency, post-9/11, to categorize Muslims in unflattering ways.
To some extent, Williams was a victim of the same kind of out-of-context information-clipping as Shirley Sherrod, the African-American official who was ousted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this summer after a video excerpt of a speech made it sound as though she had discriminated against a white farmer who sought her help. The anecdote was actually part of a broader speech in which Sherrod denounced racial prejudice.
In Williams' fuller comments on Fox News, he warned conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly to be more careful to differentiate between Muslims and Muslim terrorists, and reminded him that when people criticize, for example, the antigay Christians who protest at military funerals, they don't blame the problem on Christians in general. NPR says it fired Williams because, by expressing personal viewpoints in outside gigs, he violated its ethical standards for news analysts. But Williams has been offering his opinions for a long time; at the very least, NPR's timing is bad.
Williams is not the first to have lost his job over controversial comments about race, religion or gender. There was legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas' exhortation to Israeli Jews to "get the hell out of Palestine" and move back to Germany and Poland; Rick Sanchez, fired from CNN after a series of rants that included calling President Barack Obama a "cotton-pickin' president" and suggesting that "everyone who runs CNN" was Jewish; and Obama's economic adviser, Larry Summers, who as president of Harvard University wondered aloud whether innate differences in aptitude might be part of the reason why women were underrepresented in the sciences.
Some comments are outrageously offensive and worthy of disciplinary measures; others are dopey but relatively harmless, and some are sincere admissions of common biases. But if our first reaction to every statement that makes us uncomfortable is unmitigated horror and a swift kick out the door, we run the risk of closing off all honest debate about difficult subjects.
© 2010 Los Angeles Times