Among conservative radio talk show hosts, Sean Hannity holds a special niche. He is not as entertaining or audacious as Rush Limbaugh, nor as erudite and apoplectic as Mark Levin, nor as funny and acerbic as Laura Ingraham. Hannity is nice, or appears to be. His act (though it seems sincere), is to be reasonable and pleasant, even when under attack. Recently, however, he has been giving excessive air time to a middle-aged African-American caller who goes by the name of “Sister Rita X.” She is a strong, liberal supporter of President Obama, but more importantly, she is bats. Sister Rita not only sings the praises of Rev. Farrakhan, but believes that God has created a giant flying war machine that is designed to destroy the United States if it doesn’t change its ways.
Hannity seems to think it is amusing to his listeners for him to allow this opinionated, loud and deluded woman rant on in response to his goading. He also thinks, apparently, this it is a powerful indictment of progressive cant to have an advocate of sorts sound just as deranged as conservatives like Hannity believe all liberals really are. Hannity is using Sister Rita, mocking her while he features her, and encouraging her to be as bizarre as possible. “So tell me about this mother ship, or whatever it is, that is going to get us,” he asks. And she does.
This is nothing but cruelty. Sister Rita is on the air voluntarily and appears to be having a wonderful time, but that doesn’t alter the fact that she is embarrassing herself in furtherance of Hannity’s agenda. Yes, I know that Howard Dean and Sarah Palin embarrass themselves too, but they are amply rewarded for it, and they have sufficient experience to be completely responsible for their own conduct. They are also public figures: they get ample compensation for looking and sounding silly. Sister Rita, in contrast, thinks she is being respectfully treated, when it is obvious that behind the faux respect are contempt and sneers. In this she is like a political version of William Hung, the atrocious American Idol contestant (“She Bangs”) who was booked into events and concerts so people could laugh at him. As I wrote about him six years ago in “William Hung and the Ethics of Ridicule”…
“When we pay people to unwittingly surrender their dignity, we are deceiving them. Hong believes he is being rewarded because people like to hear him sing. He is really being rewarded because people want to use him as an object of ridicule. He hasn’t, to our knowledge, consented to that. Without his informed consent, Hung is being mistreated. Even if Hung does fully understand what he is selling, this is ethical thin ice…Paying people to surrender their dignity presumes that dignity destruction is an ethically defensible activity, and it is not. It is not even when those whose dignity is being destroyed gleefully, smilingly, or perhaps desperately, aid and abet the process.”
Using people this way—sad people, unhinged people, old people, dumb people, strange people—isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t nice. And Sister Rita X isn’t even being paid for it.
Sean Hannity should let his call screeners apply the same standards to he that he does to other, and stop making her the William Hung of political debate. If he doesn’t, he’s not as nice as he pretends to be.