Archive for August 18th, 2010

Ugliness is on the tongue of the speaker: the meaning of words change depending upon who says them

Dr. Laura Shlessinger  resigned from radio yesterday after a controversy erupted over her use of the “N-word”.  I haven’t heard the transcripts, but apparently when advising a caller on how to deal with racial discrimination, she used the N-word 11 times in the span of five minutes.

National furor erupted when Schlessinger used the N-word 11 times in five minutes during a call August 10 with an African-American caller who was seeking advice on how to deal with racist comments from her white husband’s friends and relatives. The conversation evolved into a discussion on whether it’s appropriate to ever use the word, with Schlessinger arguing it’s used on HBO and by black comedians.

Schlessinger apologized the following day, saying “I was attempting to make a philosophical point, and I articulated the N-word all the way out — more than one time. And that was wrong. I’ll say it again — that was wrong.”

While Schlessinger told King on Tuesday that she was still “regretful” over the incident, she said she feels her freedom of speech rights “have been usurped by angry, hateful groups who don’t want to debate — they want to eliminate.”

“I decided it was time to move on to other venues where I could say my peace and not have to live in fear anymore,” she said.

Fair enough, I guess, if Dr. Laura had advised a real “patient”, one that she had taken the time to know,  within the confines of her office. But did she forget that she was on radio?

More importantly, as a popular “psychologist”, doesn’t she realize that one word can have completely different meanings depending upon who says it?  (Though perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised: her doctoral thesis was on the “Effects of Insulin on 3-0-Methylglucose Transport in Isolated Rat Adipocytes”).  A lot of people apparently don’t understand this linguistic rule, either.  Her argument, that it is acceptable for white people to use the ‘N-word’ because many  black people do so,  is one that I hear regularly.  And it is one that completely ignores the realities of life.

Throughout history  we have known words to change their meaning depending upon who is uses them.  Here is a classic example,  from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:


1 : of, relating to, or characteristic of the townsman or of the social middle class

2 : marked by a concern for material interests and respectability and a tendency toward mediocrity

3 : dominated by commercial and industrial interests : capitalistic

In each case the word takes on a different tone depending upon who is using it. It is complimentary when used by an egalitarian espousing the virtues of the middle class or an epithet when from the lips of Marie Antoinette, Leona Helmsley or John Reed.

When a rabbi exhorts his congregation to live like “good Jews” he is not thinking the same thing  that some gentiles  are  when they say that someone is acting like a Jew.

When the Romans referred to” Christians” it was not complimentary, yet the word was eventually adopted by the 1st century Church.  The word “rebel” meant different things to the British colonials than it did to American revolutionaries just as it did later for  American Unionists and  Southern secessionists.

I have to admit that when talking about Fundamentalists I am  not using the word in a positive way.  Yet not long ago I was proud to call myself a fundamentalist, even though I bridled when called this by other, non-fundamentalists.

So I don’t think it is too hard to understand why, that many (but not all) Americans of color  feel  it is OK  to use the N-word themselves, it is not OK for white people to do so.  Let’s be honest, when a white person says the N-word it ain’t meant as a compliment. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, ugliness is born on the tongue of the speaker.


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