Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Defining speech and words

I really want to weigh in on this whole Dr. Laura situation. I know I try to stay on the pop culture side of things as opposed to the political but this one I really want to talk about. As you all know Dr. Laura, conservative talk show host previously best known for nude pictures of her leaked to the internet back in the day when everyone used dial up modems, has been at the center of controversy for repeatedly using the “n word” in talking to a caller. Given that writing “n word” is awkward and forces the reader to insert the word mentally I will make everyone’s life easier and just use “Voldemort” instead. It is a case of he who cannot be named.

After saying Voldemort eleven times in a discussion that covered both interracial marriage and who can and cannot say Voldemort she then apologized to the people she may have offended. That did not quell the controversy and as a result she announced that she would be ending her show at the end of the year when her contract runs out so that she could “regain her first amendment rights.” I put this last part in quotes because it is precisely what I wish to discuss.

No one has taken away Dr. Laura’s first amendment rights. No one stopped the broadcast from airing or immediately arrested her for saying Voldemort. I am not aware of any FCC fines pending or a cancellation of her program. She was within her first amendment rights to say what she did. However, freedom of speech does not also grant freedom from criticism. Others have the right to complain, protest and boycott Dr. Laura based on her comments. Sponsors can pull their support from the radio show if they believe that they are negatively impacting their brand by the association. That would be no different than her gaining McDonald’s as a sponsor if she went on the air saying that Shamrock Shakes are the greatest drink in the history of mankind and should be on the menu year round. Not renewing her contract, whether it is her decision or that of the broadcaster, is not a violation of the first amendment. It is a business decision, plain and simple.

Let’s take another example. Kanye West in 2005 and Glenn Beck in 2009 both called the president a racist. One of the things that makes America great is that both could say that without any fear of going to prison as a result of their statements. There are a lot of countries in the world today where you would be off to the gulag for saying that on national television. However, while they both had the right to say it, no matter how wrong they were in both instances, that does not make them immune from the resulting backlash. Kanye’s label could have dropped him or Fox could have cancelled Beck’s show because as a company they have that right. Consumers have the right to boycott the product. I very much believe in the freedom of speech but everyone needs to understand that freedom of speech also allows you the freedom to be an idiot.

Dr. Laura can move to the internet and other venues where she will feel in her words that she will have regained her first amendment rights. What she will really have done is made a business decision to work for herself instead of being an employee of a corporation. In a sense, you could consider her as being fired for costing her company money in terms of commercial revenue. Again, that is not a freedom of speech issue. That is a business decision.

What has been lost in all of this is the rather interesting question of who can say Voldemort and when. Dr. Laura tried to touch on this subject but did so quite poorly and in a manner that many people would find offensive. But there is a larger philosophical point here and one that I don’t quite know the answer to. From a cultural standpoint Voldemort has become one of the few words that is so context specific that its very mention can cause an uproar. I was watching Book TV on CSPAN2 this weekend (I know, I live such a fast paced life) and when the speaker used the word Voldemort in discussing how LBJ spoke to people about race you could hear a slight gasp in the room yet no one is protesting CSPAN2 about its use because it was done in a historical context. Meanwhile, you can have a group such as N.W.A. (which everyone knew stood for Voldemorts With Attiudes) use the word in their name or hip hop lyrics with no issue at all. But this does create a gray area where people need to tread lightly. It is and will most likely always be a racially charged word. It has a power that few words possess. It might be best if the word was simply retired.

Wednesday Night Music Club: Let’s get a bit more upbeat with De La Soul. Keep a lookout for the Randee of the Redwoods cameo.

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