Radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger has now resigned her radio show due to having dropped the "N-bomb" repeatedly on air and inspiring a firestorm of criticism. Apparently, the context was in telling a black caller that she was being too sensitive about the use of the word, during which Dr. Laura for some reason needed to use the term on air about 11 times. Having not heard the broadcast, I won't comment on Dr. Laura's situation--at a time when unemployment has been over 9% for over a year it's hard to gin up too much sympathy for a multimillionaire celebrity voluntarily deciding not to renew her contract--but the issue does raise some thoughts:
1) What is it that makes the "N-bomb" offensive? Interestingly, TV censors have allowed the word on broadcast TV for many years (Chevy Chase calling Richard Pryor a "N*gger" on SNL in the '70s, to which Pryor replied "Dead Honkey") while even the F-bomb has been banned during that time. But the N-bomb is widely considered far more offensive in social situations and workplaces, even if used in a benign context. The only explanation I have for its "taboo" status is that it has been used for so long as an offensive term and loaded with hate that the term itself, in any context, carries the offensiveness with it.
2) Can the word ever be disarmed of its power? This is the idea argued by black rappers and comedians, that "taking the word back" by calling oneself and ones' friends by the word will make it benign. Word meanings do change over time--for example, "moron" used to mean a specific mental condition, while now anyone who rear ends your car or donates money to Sarah Palin can earn that term. However, as long as most people continue to shun a word--and certainly most whites do, unless they are careless or trying to offend--it will maintain its power to offend and hurt.
3) Does it depend on the context in which the word is used? Generally yes--if used in telling a joke or because the teller doesn't know better (say, if English isn't their first language) we wouldn't put that in the same category of a Klansman hollering it at the black family that moved in next door. But if we've decided to "retire" the word (as the NAACP suggested a few years back) it would have to be discouraged even in those contexts.
4) Does it depend on who uses the word? Can blacks use it, but not whites? To that I'd say no, since (a) if the word itself is bad and should be discouraged in ALL contexts, then it shouldn't matter who uses it, whether it's a well meaning white or black person, and (b) if the word can be "taken back" then it still can't be taboo for any group of people. Either context matters, or the word itself is taboo.
That said, what I've discussed above is really a matter of societal norms--legally of course people can't be prevented from using the N-bomb, though a private business (such as a radio station, or a sponsor for a radio station) can fire away any host using it. So before you (or Dr. Laura) goes off on the First Amendment giving you the right to use the N-bomb without consequences, it would be a good idea to read it first.
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