Yesterday, talk host Dr. Laura Schlessinger (Ask Dr. Laura) got into it with a caller about the appropriateness of using the “N-word.” Stating that African-American comics use the hated epithet all the time in their routines, Schlessinger sees no difference in everyone using it at will. Accusing the caller of being hypersensitive, she claimed not to understand why it’s such a big deal. “Claim” is the operative word. I think she understands—very well. That word has been historically used to oppress and victimize and entire people. Words, as she well knows, are powerful weapons.
Like me, Dr. Laura is Jewish. (She’s a Jew by choice, and although she famously abandoned Orthodox Judaism in 2003, Schlessinger has not, to my knowledge, renounced her conversion.) So, I was shocked at her lack of (even adopted) cultural memory even more than her lack of sensitivity to the nature and power of defamatory language. It defies my belief that she doesn’t understand the difference between an AfricanAmerican comic using the N-word and her own use of it.
Nasty, crass, cruel and offensive slurs have been used against Jews for generations. The “K-word,” comes immediately to mind, although there are far worse—words that have persecuted and vilified—and resulted in untold suffering over centuries.
Do Jewish comics use some of those epithets in stand-up routines? Sure. Do they make us (as Jews) cringe? Sometimes. But those same epithets uttered by an outsider are more than cringe-worthy; they are deeply offensive, if not downright chilling. Hearing a non-Jew (comic or not) using the “K-word,” for example, or worse shakes my cultural memory to the core, cranking up my anti-Semite “spidey sense” to “11.”
Yes, Jewish comics use those slurs to get a rise; to get a laugh out of audiences Jewish and Gentile. But a Jewish joke is a very different fish (and I don’t mean gefilte) emerging from the mouth of a non-Jew. So for Dr Laura to feign ignorance is no valid defense, and if it is—and she really is that naive—then shame on her.