It is probably safe to say that the N-word is viewed by some as being the most racist, yet rhetorically powerful, epithet in the English language. It can equally be said that the word, as a result of its many connotations and meanings, is viewed by some young African-Americans as a "term of endearment" among friends.
Despite the NAACP attempt to symbolically "bury" the N-word in 2007, the word has continued to generate a considerable amount of criticism, debate, and controversy in the media. The use of the N- word by Dr. Laura Schlessinger during one of her broadcast segments casts light on controversial content and language in radio programming. Here are what I believe to be a few lessons to be learned from this situation.
More Drama, Less Advice
First, Dr. Laura Schlessinger's N-word "rants" give further credence to the notion that the "Talk- Advice" radio format is, at times, concerned more with drama and entertainment than providing true expert advice. Over the course of her career in radio, Schlessinger has created for herself a larger-than-life dramatic persona called "Dr. Laura." This is partly due to her tell-it-like-it-is approach to dealing with her callers, that is at times both rude and provocative.
Schlessinger's no-holds-barred communicative style of delivery provides her callers with quick-witted responses to rather complex social and behavioral problems. While her callers are in the middle of explaining very detailed problems, Dr. Laura is well known for interrupting them with a "Stop whining!" Or at other times, she simply tells them to "Grow up!"
Nevertheless, it is this sort of "theatrical content" that creates an environment for the N-word to take hold and flourish. Rather than directly answering her black female caller's concerns about whether it was racist for her white husband and his friends to use the N-word (as most therapists probably would have done), Dr. Laura launched into a diatribe about how black comedians on HBO say the N-word and it's ok, but when whites say the word -- it's a problem. And when the caller protested Schlessinger's use of the N-word, Dr. Laura, in dramatic fashion, was both defensive and defiant as she continued to use the racial epithet, claiming she was quoting the N-word as opposing to saying it. But the N-word was uttered by Schlessinger 11 times during the show.
As stated earlier, Schlessinger's theatrical approach to content provided an environment whereby a word with tremendous linguistic and communicative power was allowed to take hold and created a public relations nightmare. In addition to providing an apology for her transgressions on her Web site, Schlessinger also decided to end her 30-year old syndicated radio program at the end of the year.
It would appear that Dr. Laura's radio content placed a greater emphasis on entertainment and drama than on providing advice. The caller was seeking professional expertise to answer her question, but got instead N-word "rantings" by one who might be called a radio "drama queen." If Schlessinger had truly been acting in the capacity of a therapist, she would have (1) directly answered the caller's question instead of circumventing it and (2) refrained from saying the N-word under any circumstances out of concern for the caller's emotional well-being.
But Schlessinger was "acting" and herein lays the ethical problem-this actually was "theatrical content" masking as professional content-related advice. Schlessinger's "theatrical content" may be good for ratings, but this type of content is not good for the caller who is truly seeking a helpful answer to a complicated problem which, by the way, may be outside of the purview of Dr. Laura's pop psychology. Moreover, if Dr. Laura provides any "advice" within the context of the theatrics, that "advice" may come across as trivial, impractical or completely off base -- as could easily be argued about her use of the N-word. In the end, it seems to me that Dr. Laura ranted and raved during her talk shows one too many times and the theatrical content that had been her habit for so long, coupled with her use of the N-word, was her undoing after a 30-year run on radio.
Second, the Dr. Laura fiasco tells us that sometimes ethical considerations trump First Amendment rights. What undergirds Schlessinger's "theatrical content" on the air is the notion that her words are protected speech. And while her words are protected by the First Amendment, the N-word presents unique challenges that fall more within the scope of the ethical.
Schlessinger was forced to struggle with several issues: (1) the usage, more than once, of what is arguably the vilest word in the English language, (2) the usage of this word by a person who is of European origin and (3) the appropriate or inappropriate use of the N-word as a response to the caller's question. These, I would argue, were the issues that served as the foundation for Dr. Laura's apology.
When Values and Image are Threatened, Apologize!
Finally, the Dr. Laura N-word debacle tells us that apologizing for doing a wrong serves both ethical and strategic functions. The word "apology" comes from "apologia," Aristotle's term for rhetoric that today we'd call "image-repair," or "crisis management." Schlessinger's apology thus served two important purposes: (1) "ethical realignment" (my term), and (2) image-repair. Ethical realignment is the notion of bringing one's sense of what is right back into agreement with what is deemed to be true and acceptable in society. Dr. Laura's use of the N-word shows her as being rude and unethical. By admitting that "she was wrong in using the word for what she called an attempt to make a philosophical point," Schlessinger was realigning herself with the ethical standards and practices (good usage of language) of the broadcast media profession. And in a more general way, she was also realigning her conservative values with the proper language decorum deemed appropriate in a civil society.
Schlessinger's apologia also allowed her to perform damage control with respect to her image. Some would say that her use of the N-word branded her a racist. By apologizing, Schlessinger was showing that she was accepting responsibility for her actions. In essence, she was saying that "I'm a good human being who made a mistake and did something wrong." A person who is truly racist rarely, if ever, apologizes.
While it is clear that Dr. Laura Schlessinger did the "right thing" ethically by apologizing for her use of the N-word, it is equally clear that she also felt that her free speech rights, granted by the U. S. Constitution, had been violated. In addition to announcing the end of her radio program on the Larry King Live show, Dr. Laura told King that she was ending the program so she could "regain [her] First Amendment rights back."
Schlessinger felt that the N-word debacle had, in essence, curtailed her ability to say exactly what was on her mind. Moreover, Dr. Laura said that she wanted to be able to speak her mind, free from special interest groups who would seek to censor her or attack the sponsors of her show. She claimed that the "voices of public opinion" had made a concerted effort to take away her constitutional rights.
The First Amendment is critically important in a free society like America. And emphatically so for those, like Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who work in the mass media. And while the First Amendment says that Congress shall pass no law abridging the right to say, or reference, abusive language such as the N-word, it doesn't mean that one should say it.
Even though Schlessinger may find greater First Amendment freedom on the Internet, in a podcast, on YouTube, or even satellite radio, the ethical responsibility of whether to use controversial language is still there, lurking behind the free- speech clause of the Bill of Rights. Controversial words such as the N-word and the R-word "up the free speech/ethical responsibility ante" because of the complexity of usage surrounding the words-i.e. who can say the word, who can't, is the word contextually bound historically, etc. In the end, media practitioners, particularly shock-jocks or practitioners who would use tactics like Dr. Laura's 10, need to be more mindful of the potential consequences of using language deemed by the public to be abusive, despite the First Amendment. As stated by communication scholar Stephen Lucas, discussing the relationship between free speech and ethics, "But whatever the legal outcome may be [of the Dr. Laura N-word situation], it will not alter [emphasis added] the ethical responsibility of [media practitioners]...to avoid abusive language. Legality and ethics, though related, are not identical."