Incivility as a way to avoid thinking

In the Sunday Times, David Segal likens conservative talk radio hosts to gangsta rappers. Segal identifies four common elements: ego, haters, feuds and verbal skills. [For starters: I’d estimate about half the rappers identified as “gangsta rappers” are no such thing. Among the mis-identified: Jay-Z. Ja Rule. Eminem.]

Although no explanation for these common elements is provided during their discussion, a reasonably savvy reader should be able to detect a common reason for at least three…old fashioned, patriarchical codes of masculinity. Big men boast, they lead, they protect, they fight, and they take all comers. As least as far as this argument goes, gangsta rappers and conservative radio talk show hosts are as much alike as cowboys, action movie stars, MMA fighters and my butcher.

Then Segal argues:

Once you subtract gangsta rap’s enthusiasm for lawlessness — a major subtraction, to be sure — rap is among the most conservative genres of pop music.

We are meant here to overlook the obvious fact that these lyrical descriptions of lawlessness (he means, I think, drug dealing, pimping, stealing, vandalism and murder) are fictional. That’s easy to do, since we’re already aware that one of the main things that differentiate rap music and radio talk show hosts is race. We’re quite accustomed to assuming black men are lawless, so ignoring the race differences between these two groups of performers takes no effort at all. And what Segal means by “conservative” is actually “bourgeois”: “exalting capitalism and entrepreneurship.” Putting aside the mis-identification of these traits as conservative (he could have equally well said “Protestant”), what gets washed away here is how much more difficult it is to be financially successful as a black person–especially a black recording artist–in America than it is to make gobs of money winding up Iowan grannies on the radio. As Spike Lee and others have been eager to point out, America’s promise of meritocratic self-improvement has been systematically denied to those of a darker hue (c.f. Dalton Conley). No wonder there’s a chronic preoccupation with success…

Moreover, Segal argues:

rap has an opinion about human nature that is deeply conservative — namely, that criminals cannot be reformed. The difference is that gangsta rappers often identify themselves as the criminals, and are proud of their unreformability.

I will not annoy you with the LONG list of rap songs in which the protagonist finds god, a good woman, or just the common sense to put away a criminal lifestyle and employ those skills in the work of entertainment. But this may be the point at which I can suggest what I think is a true similarity between rappers and talk show hosts: both know and understand the rules of media engagement and use hypermasculine tropes (posturing, verbal aggression, fear mongering) to make oodles and oodles of money.

Segal resolves his argument in the dumb-ass (that’s a technical designation) trope of the summer:

The suspicion boils down to another question: Can people listen to highly provocative words (and in rap’s case, irresistible beats) and still be civil?

The relentless preoccupation with civility in the wake of Kayne’s outburst, and Serena’s (etc.) is making many of us agitated. The problem is not a decline in civility, IMHO, but the use of a moral panic around the decline of civility to distract from the truly uncivil way in which we treat the poor, ethno-racial minorities, women, working class men, etc. If you want to worry about incivility, why don’t you think about health care for a minute, buster.

Or I’ll bust a cap in your ass.



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8 responses to “Incivility as a way to avoid thinking

  1. There’s some pithy quote from Alinsky about how one’s concerns with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with your personal stake in the issue. Seems like Segal is bending over backwards (waaay backwards) to find a way to avoid saying that conservative talk radio is crazy. I mean, why bring rap into this at all? Some the top conservative voices are batshit nuts, regardless of the existence of rap or not…

    What do you think is behind all this delicacy and getting of vapors? It’s linked to the shift to Dem pres, no?

  2. This qualifies as the post of the month – your analysis is terrific! You do a great job of calling out the relentless fetishization of the form of debate over its content and in the context of a specious but powerful comparison. Bravo! (By the way: you have a butcher? And one you know well enough to know his masculine foibles?)

  3. BTW, Media Matters has a (much less thoughtful) commentary on the Segal article here:

  4. What Andrew says is true; to wit, my comment didn’t add much. Honestly, I wanted to make sure that you got some comments because I really liked what you said and didn’t want it to seem like it went down a black hole.

  5. To echo the comments above: this really is a terrific post.

  6. Jenn Lena

    Thanks, folks. I’m glad Media Matters hit on the normalization of hate mongering discourse–that’s a point I glanced off, but did not hit.

    And I do have a butcher. Actually, I don’t have a butcher so much as my friend has one I rarely use. But I do have a fishmonger, and I do notice his masculine posturing.

  7. S. Carter :)

    Dr. Lena,

    I’ll echo the above: Great post!

    Just one question: How do you figure it is “much more difficult… to be financially successful as a black person–especially a black recording artist–in America than it is to make gobs of money winding up Iowan grannies on the radio”? Really?


  8. Pingback: The REAL Incivility | The Global Sociology Blog

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