I was driving through the magnificent wilderness of our country's Southwestern desert. Those vast spaces are a radio wasteland, as well, monopolized mostly by a Limbaugh/Beck/Hannity nexus of complaint and protest so caustic that Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio show, broadcast from a remote station somewhere in Arizona, felt, by comparison, almost like a relief.
Still, it was jarring to hear the N-word used so abundantly in public. A black woman had called in for advice about her white husband, who remained silent as visitors and friends persisted in commenting on her race.
Dr. Laura's diagnosis was immediate, formulated even before she had heard the substance of the complaint: the caller was hypersensitive about race, Dr. Laura said. And she stuck to her guns even when the caller said that the N-word had been used against her. In fact, Dr. Laura used the N-word right back at the caller, some 11 times in just a few minutes.
Dr. Laura was relying on the mistaken premise that white people are justified in using the word because black comedians and hip hop artists do so regularly. The point is worth discussion, but what stands out about the exchange is the enthusiasm and relish with which the N-word seemed to roll off of Dr. Laura's tongue.
In spite of its despicable vileness -- or because of it -- the N-word has the kind of power that good profanity commands. Many Americans find few things more linguistically satisfying than a well-placed F-word, and the N-word has a lot of the same force.
I'm not saying that Dr. Laura enjoyed using the word. But once you find an excuse to use a forbidden word like that, well, sometimes it's just hard to stop.
Of course, a number of commentators on this incident have noted that the use of the N-word wasn't Dr. Laura's only mistake. During the same call, without data or evidence, she asserted that blacks voted for Barack Obama simply on the basis of race. And she repeated the ridiculous notion that the election of a black president should have suddenly defused all racial sensitivity, which is the equivalent of arguing that all gender issues should have disappeared the moment a woman was appointed to the Supreme Court.
But Dr. Laura's real problem -- besides the fact that she's short on the temperament needed to help most of her troubled callers -- came to light during an entirely different phone call that occurred earlier in the same program:
A young woman, already in tears, told Dr. Laura that she had trouble having sex with her husband because she couldn't forget having been molested by a neighbor when she was four or five. Basically, Dr. Laura told her to stop crying, to just forget about something that happened such a long time ago, to be glad that she has a good husband now, and to have sex with him as soon as he got home that evening.
This is about the same as telling a soldier coming home from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder to just get over it and be glad he didn't lose a leg.
In short, Dr. Laura lacks the empathy and imagination needed to understand the tenacious grip with which real trauma can attach itself to the human psyche and the effort that it takes to dislodge it. One wonders what the hapless caller's reaction will be when she discovers that her problems don't immediately disappear in response to Dr. Laura's simple-minded advice.
Groups of people can suffer lasting trauma, as well, and there's little reason to believe that Dr. Laura understands or appreciates the impact that their national history has on modern-day blacks. Her advice: Just get over it.
But as a white person without much empathy, she may never understand that it's just not that easy.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.