#13 Are there words we should NEVER say—and who makes that decision?

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.

8 Responses to #13 Are there words we should NEVER say—and who makes that decision?

  1. Montana says:

    I am so happy that the ugly (inside and out) crazy old gym teacher reaped what she had sowed. She could have gotten her argument across by saying “N word” and not using the word and by not saying “don’t NAACP me” but like Michael Richards AKA “Cosmo Kramer”,she ends up the the trash heap of history, a history of her own making. I am so happy that the free market AKA sponsors started to pull their ads (I guess they were exercising their free speach) and she finally realized that she was just another “run of the mill gabby” and her days were numbered. She realized that she was not as smart as she thought she was, finally!

    The problem with Palin is the same when she mistakenly referred to Ronald Reagan Eureka College, being in California and we all know its in Illinois, same thing, she does not fact check anything she is going to say. She is soooo Palin!

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  2. Cedric W. says:

    I’ve heard the N-word, and to be honest it’s not all that powerful, originally it was a term meaning black in spanish. But due to it’s use in America’s history it has been darkened and smirred to become a slur. That being said it is inappropriate for anyone to use a racial or sexual slur, because there is always someone out there who may or will find it hurtfull. And yet many people still due use these said slurs, some say it’s to take it back, but what would they really be taking back. There are no word police, just people who feel that a word is hurtfull. This is different for everyone, seeing how you can call one person a nerd and they agree, while another and they blow up. Words are linked to different feelings and emotions, and it’s hard to tell what will effect who.

    In all, if there are words out there that some can use but others cannot, why not scratch out the words from our vocabulary and move on. Or at the very least not use it in the context that made it a slur.

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  3. Travis says:

    I use the N-word, its common in my enviorment. However, outside my social group I never.I call white, yellow, green, etc. persons brother and sister I dont harbor hate. Unless provoked I keep a lid on my speech. I get the point about free speech but hate is a different thing.

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  4. Keith Mack says:

    There is a limit to free speech it is inate .its that” awwww deep down dats messed up i should say sorry feeling”. Even so some words just sound wrong in the right environment and right in another the” N_A” versus “N_ER” arguement proves this. Its the simple turning of the E.R into A. with that simple change there is a major difference and different feeling comes depends because there is a racial slur in one and the ongoing war to take back our history in the other these word are sacred still and should not be used on t.v too much ,i believe that if krammer would have used the right way with enough respect from our race as a whole or one an indivdual scale the aftermath would not have been any where near as bad .Other words dirty word like the f-word etc dont deserve to be in that censored list .

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  5. […] Back on August 22, 2010, I posed the following questions on this blog: […]

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