Last week, Laura Schlessinger called it quits for her syndicated radio show. The timing of the announcement appears to have been due to the brouhaha over her on-air use of the N-word. She used the word a number of times while responding to a caller. You can view a news clip at http://abcnews.go.com/Business/video/dr-laura-schlessinger-quits-radio-show-11426221 for some context about the incident.
According to the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/19/AR2010081906491.html), Schlessinger told Larry King that on one hand she was energized by the end of her show. She said, “I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what is on my mind.” According to the same article, Sarah Palin told Schlessinger “Don’t retreat…reload.” Others have called Schlessinger’s comments unacceptable and despicable. The lines are drawn.
CNN i-report posted an online article titled “Conversation About Disparaging Words”—and posed the following questions:
Is it ever appropriate to use racial slurs, anti-homosexual terms and other bad words? If it is, tell us the situation. Has the Web changed the situation of when and where it’s OK to use these words? (http://ireport.cnn.com/ir-topic-stories.jspa?topicId=482889).
I pose similar questions to you. Are there words that we should NEVER say in any situation? Are there words that some people CAN say, but those same words remain off limits to others? Should the decision be based on history, common sense, location, or the moment?
For instance, Bob Dylan used the N-word in his song “Hurricane.” Chris Rock uses it on stage. Is it ok for celebrities to use that word in the context of their craft? Or possibly, Dylan, if he were writing “Hurricane” today would not use the word because of the reaction. Perhaps.
While this is the most recent incident, it goes beyond the N-word. Ethnic groups have certain words they find offensive. Advocates for people with cognitive disabilities have their list of words. And so on.
And who is the word police? Who determines the words—and how should that determination be made?
For me it is common sense and historical. As a student of history, I realize the hatefulness with which the N-word was used. Why would I want to perpetuate that? Knowing that its use creates tension, hurt feelings, and uneasiness then why use it? But should my moral compass be the same for others?
I remember when I was teaching high school more than twenty years ago, I actually did play the Dylan song mentioned above for a sociology class. I thought the word, as used in the song, had power and purpose. It drove home a point about discrimination and prejudice. But I still did not just slap it on and play it. I brought the lyrics to African American colleagues and African American students for their input. Not one objected. I played the song in class; it generated reasoned and passionate discussion. Perhaps it was the time. Perhaps it was because the students trusted me and knew the word was one piece of a lesson—and not being used to hurt or to be cool. Would their response be the same today? I am not sure.
What do you think? Are there words we should NEVER say? And who makes that decision?
© Steve Piscitelli and Steve Piscitelli’s Blog, 2010.