Three actors with bad lines: Mel Gibson insulted Jews, Michael Richards shrieked the "n-word" and Isaiah Washington hurled a homosexual insult at a fellow performer, all in very public settings.
How offended are we by such incivility? Some epithets are worse than others, according to a Harris survey released yesterday, which gauged America's tolerance for racial slurs and other derision.
"Despite these feelings, few adults feel the government should ban the use of such language on television or radio," the survey said.
Among five unsavory nicknames, the n-word was ranked the worst by 85 percent of the respondents, categorized as "extremely offensive" by more than half of them. A reference to Jews came in second, cited by 81 percent, followed by "ho" (72 percent), a slang word for homosexual (70 percent) and another Jewish insult (68 percent).
Of a half-dozen recent spectacles, Mr. Richards' rant during a comedy club routine last year raised the most eyebrows, offending 69 percent of the respondents. Radio host Don Imus' reference to black female basketball players as "nappy-headed hos" came in second, offending 64 percent, while Mr. Gibson's utterances — made after he was stopped by police for drunken driving — was third at 63 percent.
Mr. Washington displeased 54 percent of the respondents, followed by radio host Rush Limbaugh, who aired a joke description of Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, as "Obama Osama," which offended 50 percent. In last place was George Allen, who offended 37 percent after using the term "macaca" during a Virginia campaign rally last year.
Overall, women took more offense than men at the assorted gaffes. The survey also revealed some ethnic differences. Mr. Imus' remarks were perceived as offensive by 88 percent of black respondents, followed by Mr. Richards (cited by 83 percent), Mr. Gibson (70 percent), Mr. Limbaugh (60 percent), Mr. Allen (49 percent) and Mr. Washington (46 percent).
But whites were likeliest to find Mr. Richards offensive, and even then he was cited by only 44 percent, followed by Mr. Imus (40 percent), Mr. Gibson (39 percent), Mr. Washington (33 percent), Mr. Limbaugh (28 percent) and Mr. Allen (17 percent).
Some want to do away with the notorious "n-word" altogether. On Monday, the term was pronounced "dead" during the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which staged a mock funeral for it, complete with plywood casket.
"Today, we're not just burying the n-word, we're taking it out of our spirit," said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "We have to bury the 'pimps" and 'hos" that goes with it."
While nine out of 10 of the respondents to the Harris poll said they were comfortable answering questions about racial slurs, many were not eager to formally rein them in.
About one-third — 34 percent — said the words should not be officially banned, leaving broadcasters to set their own standards for "respectful and appropriate" language. About 30 percent said that it should be up to the individual to monitor and screen what they considered appropriate. Just more than a quarter — 27 percent — said the government should ban offensive words on TV and radio.
The poll of 2,383 adults was conducted May 8 to 14.