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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Best Reason for Homeschooling


“Homeschooling” is a noun; “homeschool” is sometimes a noun, sometimes a verb. “We homeschooled our daughters”—verb, past tense. Also, a true sentence.

This week we move our second daughter to university. She, like her older sister did, begins one year sooner than she would have if she had not been homeschooled. But this is not why she was homeschooled.

We began homeschooling in 1998, in part as a convenience for our family while I enjoyed a sabbatical at the University of Oxford. Homeschooling was portable. It was a reasonable experiment. Also a successful experiment.

At that point, our older daughter had been to public school for kindergarten and first and second grades. These were not bad experiences. But there was something missing. Later, she experimented with a return to public school in high school and changed her mind after one semester.

Our younger daughter was homeschooled from the beginning, but attended junior high for two years at an excellent private school. Then it was back to homeschooling.

Each year, and for each of our daughters, we made the best decision we could about their education. This is a parent’s responsibility. Thankfully, it is a freedom we still enjoy.

With each decision we considered several things:

  1. Where could they be taught what they needed to know?
  2. How would they be taught what they needed to know?
  3. Would the things they would be taught be true?
  4. Would they be taught how to think intelligently for themselves?
  5. Would they eventually be able to teach themselves the truth about things yet to be learned?
  6. Would they be treated fairly and respectfully by their teaching authorities?
  7. Would they be learning in a physically safe environment?
  8. Would they be learning in an emotionally healthy environment?

These were our major questions. Athletic programs, music programs, theater programs, and the like, were important but secondary. Whatever talent they had for any of these things deserved development, but not at the risk of shrinking—or, God forbid, losing—their souls.

Now I think of it, much of our concern reduced to three basic things, revolving round one major concept: (1) proper respect for truth; (2) effectual methods of obtaining truth; and, (3) behavior in accordance with truth.

The second of these depends on growth in reasoning powers and skill in assessing evidence. It’s here where many educational options in the United States prove so terribly inadequate.

I was reminded of this today when I came across a nice little article by Susan Wise Bauer, called “Dodging the Homeschool Stereotype.” She explains why she opted for homeschooling in the style of classical education:

Classical education leans heavily on the evaluation of evidence: The educated child learns to avoid logical fallacies, to decide whether arguments are trustworthy or flawed.

I believe she’s right when she adds:

And both secular and religious classrooms are prone to simplistic thinking.

The reasons why traditional classrooms, whether secular or religious, are prone to simplistic thinking deserves development in other posts. But I stress the point that simplistic thinking is the blight of current cultural discourse, infecting all of our institutions—political, educational, ecclesiastical—and methods of knowledge management—schools, media, church, and home.

It happens that homeschooling is susceptible to the same infection. But it need not be. And parents have more direct control over this dimension of childhood education if they do not rely on traditional classrooms.

Homeschooling is a choice. Parents must be free to exercise the option. The future of our culture, the outlook for the common good, may depend on the success of homeschooling.

Dodgy Ruminations about an Afterlife


“God bless non-scientific narratives,” writes Jacques Belinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University. Of course, this is with tongue in cheek, since, though he’s Jewish, Berlinerblau is an atheist.

He speaks sincerely, however, about a hopefulness grounded in certain non-scientific narratives, for he’d like to believe that there’s an afterlife. Actually, he finds it hard to believe that there is not an afterlife of some kind.

So he believes that God does not exist, and sorta-kinda believes that there is an afterlife.

This lede sets the context for Berlinerblau’s review, titled “You’re Dead. Now What?” of four books on the topic:

Berlinblau is a touch dismissive of D’Souza. But Berlinblau, I believe, is right that there really isn’t good strictly scientific evidence for an afterlife.

If Berlinerblau’s review of Frohock is rooted in a reliable summary of the book, I’d say it’s worth a look. But it sounds like Frohock is working from some sort of pantheist or neo-pagan metaphysics (or worldview). I wish Berlinerblau had said more about this.

This reviewer makes Casey’s book sounds especially dull. But he has positive things to say about it. And I must say that the pages of this book are cloaked in the most impressive cover of the bunch.

Johnston appears to be one of those philosophers who has to be brilliant simply because it’s frequently impossible to understand what he’s saying. I suspect he’s of the “continental” variety. Berlinerblau’s sample quote from the book is almost a dead give-away.

I probably will read Frohock, eventually. He’s supposed to be ambivalent about whether science could yield evidence for an afterlife. And yet, says Berlinerblau, he’s a materialist. Like Berlinerblau, I find this confusing. If an individual person is completely constituted by material stuff and its physical organization, and this stuff dissolves—or its structure breaks down—following death, then what is the nature of the life beyond death?

The review is published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, of all places. This indicates re-entry of the possibility of an afterlife into academic surmise. Until recently, most scholars would rather die than enter a conversation about such things. Possibly, most scholars still have this preference. (It has not always been so.)

It’s equally fascinating that the traditional Christian doctrine of the afterlife is waved off with an almost pious flick of the wrist. (Check out the review and see if you agree.)

Berlinerblau’s book review enters a general conversation that is cautiously making its way back into serious discourse. But this discourse is dominated by a distinctly secular hope for a pleasant afterlife. Does this sound to anyone else like whistling past the graveyard?

Afternotes:

1. Berlinerblau adorns his essay with a choice literary quote:

The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop.

—Saul Bellow, Ravelstei

2. Christopher Benson reviews the Casey book, together with A Very Brief History of Eternity, by Carlos Eire, for the Christian periodical Books and Culture. Benson titles his review “Without End—Changing conceptions of the afterlife.” Indeed.

***

What do you think?

  1. What is the best evidence for an afterlife?
  2. If you believe in an afterlife, what will it be like?
  3. What is the best argument that there is no afterlife?
  4. Would there have to be a God for there to be an afterlife?
  5. Are you hoping for an afterlife?
  6. Are you expecting an afterlife?

Interview with Brian Auten


I was interviewed recently by Brian Auten. Most of Brian’s questions concern the topic of miracles. Today Brian has posted this audio interview at his website and can be heard here.

Doug’s other posts on the subject of miracles:

Mysterious Opening Lines: Le Carré, Ludlum, and Others


GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).

First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Read more of this post

“If God, Why Evil?” Presentation Slides


Today I participated in the “Always Be Ready” conference in Downey, CA. The title of my presentation was “If God, Why Evil?”

You’re welcome to view the Keynote slides I used for this presentation. Just click on the following link:

Doug Geivett, “If God Why Evil” (2010.07.31)

Related post here.

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