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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