Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dr. Laura Effed Up

For those who haven't heard, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a well known conservative radio talk show host, has recently retired from radio after using the N-word multiple times during a conversation with an African American caller. You can read a transcript and listen to audio here if you so wish. It's just as ugly as you would imagine it to be.

Usually when a story like this comes up, there are three questions that are repeated over and over in the public discourse.
  1. What is the nature of my right to free speech vis-a-vis offensive speech?
  2. Doesn't speaker intent matter?
  3. Why can African Americans use the n-word as an in-group term, but I can't?
As far as 1. goes, I'm a linguist dammit, not the ACLU! But, no one has been arrested, for what they said, and Dr. Laura was not forced off the air by a government agency. As Word said
In the United States we can say anything we want as we are protected by the first amendment, but that does not mean that it will or should always be tolerated.
And that's all I'll have to say about that.

As for 2. and 3., I think these are not unreasonable questions to ask in a cultural vacuum. After taking cultural history into account though, the usual answer to 2. and 3. is that these are just the prices that you pay after centuries of continuous social domination, which you have (albeit unknowingly) cashed in on and benefited from in your own life. I would say it is a good exercise to accept that as a sufficient answer, although I understand why that will really piss some people off. Some bad things happen to everyone, and as Victor Frankl said
a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.

But, the whole reason I'm making this post is that I think there are good answers to 2. and 3. even within a cultural vacuum (ish).  When news stories like these come up, I'm specifically reminded of a paper by Chris Potts on expressives.  The paper in question is called "The expressive dimension", and it appeared in Theoretical Linguistics in 2007 (you can find a copy on his website). In this paper, Potts defines expressives as words or phrases which indicate an attitude of one entity towards another, and specifies that attitude's intensity and positivity/negativity. I should also note that Potts' paper was not written to address the morality of public usage of offensive speech. Rather, he was addressing theoretical questions within pragmatics, and I have decided to apply his reasoning to this specific case.

The aspects of expressives which Potts identifies which are crucial for answering questions about 2., speaker intent, are their independence and immediacy. Potts says that expressives are independent from the propositional content (what is being said) of the sentences they're embedded in. To take his example:
(4) That bastard Kresge is famous.
(5) Kresge is famous
(4) and (5) mean the same thing in a very strict sense, but adding the expressive "that bastard" adds an additional expressive meaning. This goes to say that it is not necessary to demonstrate that Dr. Laura called some an n-word in order to claim that she entered the attitudes conveyed by the n-word into the discourse, because the expressive content of an utterance is independent from the propositional content of an utterance anyway.

Immediacy is closely related. As Potts says
the act of uttering an expressive morpheme is suffcient for conveying its content.
That is, expressives are essentially performative. By merely saying the word, Dr. Laura was immediately introducing the attitudes associated with it into the context. Just like you can't unring a bell, you can't unsay the n-word.

(Incidentally, the argumentation of the previous two paragraphs is a large part of why I've decided to only write "n-word" in even this dispassionate and theoretical blog post.)

I think reasoning from Potts' paper can also address 3., the use of the n-word as an in-group term. He says that another property of expressives is perspective dependence. Remember how I defined an expressive as "words or phrases which indicate an attitude of one entity towards another, and specifies that attitude's intensity and positivity/negativity"? Well, the n-word could be understood to indicate this attitude between these entities:
  • People who find blackness hateful...
  • ...have explosively negative attitudes towards...
  • people.
Now, if two African Americans are having a conversation, and one calls the other the n-word, the attitude which as been entered into the context is one of some third party against both of them. From there, it's not very hard to understand how the n-word became a recognition of group identity. So, to answer Dr. Laura's question, that's why black comedians can use the word, but you really really can't.

It's easy to imagine something that started off as an in-group term being used as an epithet also. Let's say that "dude" means something like
  • The Man...
  • mildly irritated by...
  • ...youth culture.
Kids would call each other dude all the time, but if a teacher said "You failed the test, dude," that would be a clear epithet. Of course, it would be no where near as awful as the n-word, because the intensity of the attitude conveyed by "dude" is much less.

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