Did Dr. Laura Use the N-Word?

It’s all over the media. Dr. Laura Schlesinger has left radio, over a dust-up over her alleged use—eleven times (!)—of the so-called “n-word” in conversation with a black female caller.

Notice I said “alleged.” The fact is, Dr. Laura did not use the “n-word” at all. Nope, not even once. She said the word, but she did not use it. How do I know? Because if the word she said had been put in writing, as she said it, it would have been placed in quotation marks, indicating that she was not employing the word to refer to something or someone or some class of people, but to speak about the word itself. This is known as mention. It is fundamentally different than use. In mention, a word is singled out for direct consideration.

The caller now says she has absolutely no respect for Dr. Laura. This is nuts. I watched in shock as Dr. Laura, who obviously agreed to appear on the show, was grilled by a CNN anchor for her wrongful action. What wrongful action?

Let’s be clear. Dr. Laura is not being arraigned because she used the n-word, but because she said the n-word.

* * *

The distinction between use and mention is well-known in philosophy and deserves greater respect. Consider this way of explaining the point from an excellent reference work in philosophy.

  • Sentence 1: The Nile is longer than the Murrumbidgee.
  • Sentence 2: The Nile is shorter than the Murrumbidgee.

The Nile and the Murrumbidgee are rivers. Which sentence, (1) or (2), is true? Answer: (1). The correct answer is determined by the comparative lengths of the two rivers. The Nile is the longest river in the world, around 4000 miles. The Murrumbidgee River of New South Wales is much shorter, at about 870 miles.

Now consider:

  • Sentence 3: “The Nile” is longer than “the Murrumbidgee.”
  • Sentence 4: “The Nile” is shorter than “the Murrumbidgee.”

Which sentence, (3) or (4), is true. Answer: (4). Why? The correct answer here is determined by the lengths of the phrases “the Nile” and “the Murrumbidgee” in sentences (3) and (4). “The Nile” (8 characters, if we include one space) is shorter than “the Murrumbidgee” (16 characters, if we include one space). “The Murrumbidgee” is twice as long as “The Nile.” So (4) is true and (3) is false. The lengths of the rivers has no bearing on the question.

[See A. W. Sparkes, Talking Philosophy: A Wordbook, p. 8.]

* * *

I have a question for readers. How are we supposed to talk about concepts without words, and about words without the words themselves? Today, apparently, you can’t even say the “n-word” for the purposes of mention and analysis. So how are people supposed to know what word the term “n-word” refers to? (You can say “the n-word” but you cannot say the word that “the n-word” stands in for.)

Outrage over an exaggerated sense of meanness in Dr. Laura’s radio counsel is another move toward the coarsening of culture in the direction of a culture of vicitimization. The poor woman who called Dr. Laura for her advice in a matter was poised to be offended. She’s been conditioned by shabby thinking and a form of racism that continues to poison public discourse.

* * *

If I say that I don’t like the “n-word,” what do you suppose I mean by that? Do I mean that I don’t like the six-letter word that is signaled by the hyphenated word? Or does it mean that I don’t like the hyphenated word?

Frankly, I don’t like either one. The first I don’t like because it is pejorative when used, and obviously (but inexplicably) dangerous even to mention. The second I don’t much like because it’s just plain stupid. It’s the only word currently tolerated for the purposes of referring to the altogether different six-letter word that starts with an “n” and is rightly offensive when it is used.

So here’s another question. What’s the difference between using the phrase “the n-word” to refer to, you know, the n-word, and mentioning (as opposed to using) the n-word itself?

Oh, and why should Dr. Laura have to leave radio over something like this?

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

6 Responses to Did Dr. Laura Use the N-Word?

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Fred,

    Thanks for your thoughtful contribution. It’s true. These are deliberate tactics used for ideological purposes. And often they are effective.

    -Doug

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  2. Fred says:

    Doug,

    THANK YOU! I live in DC, and was living in DC when people played the race card over the word “niggardly.” It is tiring to have this double-standard played out over and over and over again . . . all through “ignorance” and “sensitivity.” This horrifies me because the ignorance is a selfishly convenient implement employed for the furtherance of vice. Without the pursuit of virtue (rather than vice) there can be no just society and none of the peace derived from law, order and social harmony. The insanity of the hubris is so profound because it is as if, in order to counter or prevent hatred and discrimination, the policy is, in actuality, the destruction of society. Disgusting. I believe in God. More than being a monotheist, I am a Catholic Christian. The materialistic ideology on display in the left (socialists) revolts me. The materialistic tendencies in the right (the true, classical liberals) pains me as well, although less so because the presence of Christian faith and morals checks those tendencies where such faith and morals are not permissible in atheistic socialist materialism. GUESS THAT IS WHY MADISON (correct me) SAID THAT THE CONSTITUTION WAS WRITTEN FOR A RELIGIOUS AND MORAL PEOPLE.

    Well, the strategists of the Communist Internationale planned and executed their scheme well: infiltration and psychological warfare facilitated by semantics. Their “investment” has paid off in spades.

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  3. cam says:

    There’s an awful lot crammed into a small post here regarding one of the greatest talk show hosts of all time. At first the “said” and “used” hairsplitting was a bit overwhelming. But after a coupled of readings and digestings I believe the post raised some very legitimate issues. Yes, I learned some thing here. Thank you Doug.

    Alex really nailed the fundamentals of what’s going on and I can relate to his “patent historical fact” story. A similar thing happened to me last week. I was discussing “evil” and not “race” and found myself having to define “evil” very carefully due to the response I was getting from my good friend. Today facts and truth really get in the way of the liberal agenda that seems to be primarily fueled by emotion.

    The real story here is not about Dr. Laura at all, but really about the failed thinking processes of those that seek to destroy our current social order.

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  4. Alex says:

    Hey Doug,

    Thank you for your response. You asked if I had some other examples of how language is policed (that’s how I put it). I can give you an anecdote (though I’m sure you were hoping for some better evidence 🙂 If I find something blatant and from the news or in print, I’ll remember to send it along.

    I was having a discussion just last week with an old friend. At some point a comparison was suggested between literature produced in the West and what was produced in the East. I began to sing the praises of the West in general. My language was policed –do not pass go do not collect 200. I was treated as if I were an East-hater, a cultural snob, a member of the colonialist imperialist oppressors. The unwarranted vituperation was surprising. I was attempting to describe what are patent historical facts about the creation and development of Europe out of the ashes of the Roman empire, through the Middle Ages and into the Modern Era. But the liberal sentiment took over, with its hatred of institutions and various establishments –of authority in general, really. In the rage of moral indignation based upon many real (and surely many imaginary) grievances everyone looks like an enemy. The hermeneutics of suspicion infects even conversations among old friends. So I had to offer assurances of my good faith towards and respect of non-Western art and culture.

    A black man who calls another black man the n-word may be permitted by our culture to do his thing. But we’d be wrong to think it is okay because by being black he can’t actually hate himself. Some do and some don’t –that’s part of the human condition. And so the same goes for poor whites who call themselves crackers. What we need is to use these terms in a spirit of humor so as to deflate them of any seriousness and reveal them for the empty threats they can never fail to be. But nowadays many well-equipped satirists don’t seem to hold anything sacred and tend rather to give the impression that life itself isn’t serious or important but is only an empty threat.

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  5. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for this thoughtful and carefully crafted comment. Do you have some other examples of how language is “policed” by the socially and politically liberal, and how this constrains thought.

    I heard Mike Wallace, a thoughtful and influential conservative news commentator, say last night that the n-word should never be used except by blacks. He meant, of course, that it should never be said—that is, either used or mentioned. He’s prepared simply to accept the double standard and consider it innocuous and, in its own way, understandable.

    Note: To use the phrase “the n-word” is, indirectly, to mention the word that can no longer be uttered (i.e., be said). What other examples are there? What about “cracker.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives, as one of its definitions of “cracker,” its sense as a “poor white” person, used offensively (i.e., pejoratively) in the U.S. It is, in its offensive sense, “used as a disparaging term for a poor white person of the rural, especially southeast United States,” or, more generally, as “a disparaging term for a white person” (see here). [See the 1950 article “‘Cracker Culture’: A Preliminary Definition,” by sociologists Mozell C. Hill and Bevode C. McCall, Phylon (1940-1956), vol. 11, no. 3 (3rd qtr., 1950), pp. 223-231; published by Clark Atlanta University.]

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  6. Alex says:

    It’s even worse than what you imply. In this more and more liberal country we see one statistically designatable group being allowed not only to mention but to use the n-word without a peep of outcry. Not only to use it and mention it but to sing it and sell it in the free market. This shows us the moral indignation perpetuated in the name of race is often a ruse. It’s a way to stoke the fires of an overly democratized society and to pull a fast one on one’s constituency.

    But that’s the secret of liberalism as a political philosophy (and liberalism isn’t quarantined in the left but infects the right wing, too). Inconsistency in a cloak of moral superiority. You advertise yourself as a moral reformer all the while doing nothing to overcome the evil. This way you stay in power. It’s textbook Machievelli. Think about you left-liberals. You denounce “legislating morality” while doing everything to legislate morality. You decry the squalor and sadness of so many Native American communities while keeping them in it upon reservations which perpetuate it. You say you’re for equality while perpetuating an elite of snobbish intellectuals in the university said to be pluralistic and tolerant. You say you’re for education while destroying it by making students obsessed with transient political trends rather than enduring principles (think of all the various “studies”) You say you’re for religious freedom and tolerance while seeking to marginalize traditional Christianity.

    Word police are not only the expression of imprudent and unjust political sentiment but presage something far worse. If you control the language of a society you control its thoughts.

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