The First Amendment, Dr. Laura and (yet again) the WTC mosque

Which does the First Amendment defend more: Expression you like, or expression you don't? Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., August 18, 2010 ― Dr. Laura Schlessinger used the word “nigger” on her show last week. Eleven times. She apparently was trying to make a philosophical point about racial sensitivity and language, a point she herself realized almost at once had gone terribly wrong. The story was a minor one that had largely gone away until she announced her retirement yesterday, but the coverage is interesting for what it lacks: It’s striking for the inability of just about anyone who covers it to actually utter or write the word “nigger.”

Dr. Laura Schlessinger (Photo: Associated Press)

Dr. Laura Schlessinger (Photo: Associated Press)

“The n-word” is the evasion of the day, even on late-night TV and even from people who have no problem spouting crudities as easily as they draw breath. It’s undoubtedly an ugly and offensive word except when members of the black community say that it’s not.

We might wonder whether Dr. Laura would be bothered by other ugly and offensive words; “bitch” is a bad one, except when used by dog breeders and by some men in reference to their women as a term of (shudder) endearment. And there are others; gay men use one as a term of endearment for each other, and men who want to beat them to a pulp use it without the affection. There are those derogatory terms for members of the Jewish nation, never used as endearments except by Jessie Jackson.

The idea that people should just be polite is too simplistic and too old-fashioned in our sophisticated and nuanced world. Dr. Laura might have pointed out to her caller that, if she dislikes “nigger,” it’s rude of her husband’s white friends to refer to her or other black people that way.

If she doesn’t object to the word from her husband’s black friends but only from the white ones, she might want to ponder the inconsistency and the mixed signals she’s sending. Still, everyone has a right to stand up and say “This offends me,” and, if others hold them in any regard or respect, to expect that use of the offensive expression will stop. Otherwise, you know that they hold you in low regard.

My mother-in-law, a very proper Englishwoman, was horribly offended by the words “Yank” or “Yankee” and “Brit.” Most of us don’t find those words offensive at all, but anyone who liked and respected her would never have dreamed of using them in her presence. Respect means that we don’t allow our own opinions and habits to trump any offense someone else might feel. 

The problem Dr. Laura’s caller faces, both from her husband’s friends and from Dr. Laura herself, is the fact that none of them has enough respect for her to care about her feelings on the use of a word that is generally considered offensive. The word itself isn’t important; it’s what the symbol (the word) represents and the emotions it communicates to listeners that matter. Hence, we really can understand why a black person would be unbothered by the use of “nigger” from a black friend (it communicates some sort of feeling that most of us can’t claim to understand) but be deeply hurt by a white person not authorized by bonds of shared experience and affection to use the word. If we really can’t understand why the word is kept around in the black community, it seems that neither do many in the community, so never mind.

The analogy of this to the WTC mosque should be clear. You can tell people that they’re stupid or wrong to be offended, and, in truth, only a fool takes offense when offense isn’t intended, and only a bigger fool takes offense when it is intended. But we live in a touchy world where we treasure our right to take offense, and it takes a bigger person than most of us to get over the fact that someone else holds us in contempt. The idea floating around that the mosque debate is all about the First Amendment is idiotic.

Consider it this way: You have the right to say “nigger” whenever you please, and, even if you declare your complete freedom from racism, warriors for the First Amendment will probably not find your use of the word merely a First Amendment issue. They wouldn’t find it inappropriate that you be censured or even, as many wished for Dr. Laura, hounded from public discourse. Your protestations and invocation of the First Amendment probably would fall on deaf ears.

Anyone who says that the mosque must be built near the WTC to show respect for the First Amendment and who doesn’t demand that Dr. Laura remain on the air for the same reason treats the First Amendment only as a fetish.

In fact, neither Dr. Laura’s bad manners (for which she has profusely and probably sincerely apologized) nor the planned mosque are First Amendment issues. The government isn’t planning, as far as we know, to pass a law restricting the freedom of Muslims to worship or to build a mosque, even at ground zero, nor is it likely to forbid Dr. Laura to use incendiary language inappropriately.

Objecting to the mosque and Dr. Laura isn’t an endorsement of legal proscriptions, just an observation that the Constitution protects a lot of really objectionable things. This is all about civility, respect and self-restraint. The Constitution protects your right to throw them all out the window, but civil society doesn’t function well without them. The mosque almost certainly will be built at the current site, and the Muslim community of New York should get to build it there. They shouldn’t do it, though, and Dr. Laura should watch her tongue. With the high rancor of political debate in this country, we’d all do well to listen with generosity to others, especially others we dislike, and watch our tongues.

James Picht teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La. From the age of 6, he always knew what he wanted to be. Economist wasn’t it. But after accidentally falling in to it, he found that he liked it. Now he also likes raising his two children, being a husband to Lisa and taking pictures of trees in the middle of the night. If you’ve read to this point, he’s grateful you didn’t fall apart after the first sentence.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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