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Cut Dr. Laura slack

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By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, August 22, 2010

I confess to having a residual soft spot for Laura Schlessinger, who is retiring from radio for finally going too far.

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When an African American caller asked her for help in dealing with what she considered racist remarks by friends and family of her white husband, Schlessinger mocked her as being hypersensitive and repeated the offending N-word several times.

Outrage ensued, and Schlessinger soon after announced her retirement. America's self-appointed superego said that she was wrong but, characteristically feisty, also said that she is leaving radio not in shame but to reclaim her First Amendment rights.

In other words, she wants to be able to say what she pleases without fear of offending certain groups. Don't we all? But sometimes people are offended for good reason.

My soft spot for "Dr. Laura" corresponds to a period 15 years or so ago when she and I were often on the same page. I was writing a family-oriented column and listened to her on the radio while carpooling. Sometimes she would read my column on air.

Our shared anthem was "stop whining and take responsibility." This is hardly a revolutionary concept today, but the idea had been gathering dust for some time following America's cultural marriage of victimhood and narcissism. Coincident with widespread family dissolution -- when extended-family safety nets had largely disintegrated -- Schlessinger emerged to fill the role of a tough-love parent.

Notoriously rapier-tongued, she always cut close to the bone. Invariably, the tougher she was with callers, the more they clamored for her. Voluntary public flagellation became a drawing card for an audience of 9 million listeners who apparently felt the need for a stern lecture.

Another reason for her popularity: Dr. Laura was usually right. Every now and then, she got it flat wrong, as when she said homosexuality was a "biological error." That mistake cost her a TV show in 2000.

Worse than being wrong, which is a hazard of thinking aloud, she was guilty at times of not listening and leaping to conclusions before a caller had time to finish. Even so, to my frequent surprise, she got to the nugget and managed to reach exactly the right conclusion. Perhaps after decades of listening to the same 10 problems most humans suffer, she figured she could skip the chase altogether.

At other times, as now, her failure to listen is disastrous.

The African American caller never was able to fully explain the context or content of the remarks that made her uncomfortable. Instead, Dr. Laura repeatedly interrupted, even suggesting that the woman shouldn't have married outside her race if she was going to be so thin-skinned. We now have a new definition for "way over the top."

Dr. Laura's stated point was that since blacks frequently use the N-word, whites should be able to as well. She was correct that the word gets lots of exercise -- and her use of it was in the prosecution of that point. Even so, the N-word stands alone as too injurious for whites to use, period. Everyone knows this.

When blacks use it, they are reclaiming the word, robbing it of its power to intimidate by making it their own. The same spirit was behind Eve Ensler's "Reclaiming C---" in "The Vagina Monologues." Used by a man against a woman, the word is vile and threatening. Used by women among women, it becomes something else. Silly, if you ask me, but benign.

In any case, context is key, and we never learned from Dr. Laura's caller how the N-word was used in her situation. The woman may well have been justified in feeling hurt, and Dr. Laura might have helped. Instead, she made matters worse.

Even so, Dr. Laura deserves a little slack. The good she has done during her 30-year run, helping people see their own flawed thinking, should be balanced against her insensitivity in this case. She was unfeeling and callous, true. She also missed an opportunity to discuss why some words carry more freight than others.

But silencing people for expressing opinions or using certain words that grate on our public sensibilities carries its own risks. Even though Dr. Laura is retiring of her own volition, she is correct in noting that the overt hostilities waged in today's world against any who speak "incorrectly" have become a threat to our ability to speak freely. No matter how unpleasant, an honest discussion is healthier for the nation than censoring thoughts that ultimately may find less appealing avenues of expression.

kathleenparker@washpost.com


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