How Dr Laura misspoke
Behind Laura Schlessinger’s insistence on her right to use the N-word lies a denial of the way racism has shaped our society
Dr Laura’s argument is mounted on a principle that if a word is bad, it is bad for all. She reasoned that the use of a racist description cannot now be acceptable when it is used by a black person, but remain egregious if used by someone of a different race.
By her logic, any allowances made would be an unjustifiable distinction on the basis of race. What is good for the goose, she would maintain, must be good for the gander.
Except that, in a pluralist society, pursuing sameness in treatment does not guarantee fairness, nor show the best appreciation of diversity. Certain terms of abuse – the N-word for black folk, the F-word for gays and the B-word for women – originated as violent slanders against the target group. The idea that one can radically overwrite historical power relations, including the lingering hurt and outstanding inequality invoked by such words, is either naive or cynical.
Some of us believe that the origins of certain slurs make it impossible for them to ever be soft-landed into polite conversation. Others are of the view that members of the maligned group – whether blacks, gays and women – are granted a special permission to subvert the original intent by appropriating a bad word and using it within the community, either with poetic licence or with a tongue-in cheek purpose.
But this “permission for subversion” argument has been criticised as “political correctness” and crass pandering to oppressed groups, with no real corrective value for actual racism, homophobia or sexism. In fact, there’s agreement on both sides of the ideological divide that this approach is really quite patronising to the people who are supposed to be protected. But these objections are also then deployed to trash what is derisively referred to as “identity politics”.
In Dr Laura’s case, she sought to stake a freedom of speech claim on the right to use an abusive word against a minority group, at will. In so doing, she managed not only to show her insensitivity, but also betrayed the seeming inability of many of her ilk to acknowledge continuing inequality in society.
Of note, Dr Laura lambasted the caller for whining about racism at a moment in history when a black man is president of the US. The progress of super-performing members of minority groups – President Barack Obama being an example – is commonly used to efface any contention of systemic inequality. Even more surreal, a perverse notion of democracy is used to claim the right to a racist slur – for equal opportunity offending.
There is a simple human element that could guide discussions on diversity: empathy. Given what the N-word means not just in US history, but to race relations across the world, a modicum of decency should censure any impulse to utter it. The zeal to do otherwise speaks volumes about anyone who would insist on their “freedom of speech” to use it, given all we know.