I didn’t know who Dr. Laura was until she got fired.
The idea of a friendly-sounding general advice guru who wants to be called “Doctor Firstname” is something of a cliché, but I guess it’s mostly an American thing, and I’m not usually aware of the specific examples who are well known over there. Dr Phil’s about the only one I’d recognise, and he seems benevolent enough; as much as Sarah Palin may have put people off it, being “folksy” isn’t a crime in itself.
So I wasn’t that interested at first when I heard that one of the other ones had been fired for being racially insensitive somehow. A lot of people still don’t seem to really realise how careful a lot of broadcasters and advertisers want to be around that kind of thing, and how careful they need to be themselves when speaking in public as a result. I didn’t really care whether some exec was overreacting, or whether Dr. Laura was just a bitch.
But then I heard the show. And… wow, Dr. Laura is a bitch.
This might not actually be news to anyone. Some of her less-than-progressive views inspired this open letter regarding certain other prohibitions laid down in the Old Testament, which in turn gave rise to this scene from the West Wing, where Martin Sheen verbally bitchslaps a woman explicitly intended to be a Dr. Laura caricature.
Most recently, a black woman called in to Dr. Laura’s show, seeking advice about dealing with racist comments made by her white partner’s friends. This is what happened on The Dr. Laura Program on August 10, 2010, as broadcast and transcribed on The Colbert Report on August 18th:
Schlessinger: Well, can you give me an example of a racist comment because sometimes people are hypersensitive…
Caller: How about the N-word? So the N-word’s been thrown around…
Schlessinger: Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic and all you hear is n*****, n*****, n*****. I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it’s affectionate.
Caller: I was a little caught back by the N-word that you spewed out, I have to be honest with you. I hope everybody heard it.
Schlessinger: They did, and I’ll say it again – n*****, n*****, n***** is what you hear on HB…
Caller: So what makes it…
Schlessinger: Why don’t you let me finish a sentence?
Schlessinger: Don’t take things out of context. Don’t double N… NAACP me. You know what? If you’re that hypersensitive about color, and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.
Is it worse than you thought it was going to be? It’s worse than I thought it was going to be. And she wasn’t done; eleven N-words in five minutes was the final tally.
I don’t need to explain to you sensible folk why Laura Schlessinger is evidently a terrible person, but it’s worth reiterating. Racism is kind of a big deal. In the most modern parts of the English-speaking developed world, you only have to go back two or three generations to find black people who were owned as property. We’ve moved on a good way since then, but we’ve still not left all racial tensions and inequalities behind – as the person calling in here for advice knows only too well.
Her white husband has friends who it seems regularly use the N-word in her presence. The context isn’t clear, but even if it’s not been directed straight at this lady in an abusive fashion, she’s been made uncomfortable enough by its use that she’s phoning a talk radio show for advice. That’s the context that Dr. Laura is so keen for us to remember.
It’s an extremely loaded word, and the history attached to it is both monstrously oppressive and painfully recent. It has the capacity to convey careless contempt and disregard for millions of people more effectively and viciously than anything else in our language.
But to Dr. Laura, none of this particularly matters.
What’s much more important to her is defending her own right to shout a racial slur repeatedly at a black woman who’s just been saying how much it upsets her. The thing she’s most concerned about standing up for is her own defiant petulance – yeah, I said it, and if you don’t like it, I’ll say it again.
It doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to understand that some words are more offensive in certain situations than in others. For instance, I have a number of female friends who I will regularly call a bitch. They’ll then generally call me a cocksucker, and it’s all good sport. But if I talked to everyone quite that casually, some of them might object. It’d be bizarre of me to insist to every woman I encounter that they should consent to being called a bitch, just because it’s a word that can be used affectionately.
Likewise, some black people can use the N-word amongst each other in a manner that is not destructive or inflammatory. For that matter, some black people can probably handle hearing it from certain white friends. But, quite commonly, it’s used by white people against black people in a way intended to be cruel and derogatory, and so you really can’t assume it’ll be taken in the right way when there isn’t a pre-existing relationship there.
This is really not hard.
But Dr. Laura, who has been giving professional advice to people since 1979, “doesn’t get it”.
Something else she doesn’t get is what her right to free speech means. In response to the ensuing media attention, here’s what Dr. Laura said on Larry King’s show, on August 17th:
I made the decision not to do radio any more… The reason is I want to regain my first amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart, and what I think is helpful and useful, without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates and attack sponsors…
See, it’s all about her first amendment rights. She has the right to say anything she wants, to anyone she wants, without suffering any negative consequences for it. It’s right there in the constitution, people. The Founding Fathers held it to be self-evident that Dr. Laura always gets to have a radio show where she can say whatever she wants, and if you express the opinion that she’s said something offensive, you’re crushing her first amendment rights.
She’s not actually been fired from the show or anything. She’s just planning to leave when the current contract expires. And she says that “her sponsors and affiliates have backed her”, implying that neither she nor her employers have lost out on anything because of any complaints that might have been made.
But people are saying that she shouldn’t have said what she said. And they shouldn’t be allowed to say that. Because they’re restricting her right to free speech.
Just to be clear, she really is perfectly entitled to utter whatever racial slurs take her fancy. But other people – like, say, the people who pay her money to help the people who call her for advice instead of deliberately offending them – are also entitled to distance themselves from her afterwards.
She’s not being a “voice of dissent”. She’s being an obnoxious bully. She’s asserting her right to offend other people, not against a serious threat that deserves to be defied, but against a minority demographic who simply resent being smugly reminded of the history of oppression they still face.
Anyway. In the spirit of free expression, I am hereby exercising my free speech to say the following:
Dr. Laura is a bitch.
Now, I insist that this be printed on a t-shirt which Dr. Laura then wears at a press conference. If she doesn’t agree to this, then she’s oppressing my first amendment rights.
Wait, I’m not a US citizen. Okay, if she doesn’t do it, she’s… breaking the… Magna Carta. Or something.
Yeah, you heard.
[Edit: Sarah Palin is also confused.]
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