The latest tempest in the culture wars began when radio talk-show host Laura Schlessinger received an on-air call from a listener who identified herself as a black woman married to a white man.
The caller complained that her husband's family often used racial slurs.
Dr. Laura told the caller she was overreacting and pointed out that many black comedians use the n-word constantly. In making her point, Dr. Laura, a 63-year-old white woman, said the unexpurgated, unabbreviated n-word 11 times.
This made a whole lot of people roaring mad.
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Dr. Laura subsequently declared that she wouldn't renew her radio contract because, she said, she wanted to regain her First Amendment rights to self-expression.
She was defended in this First Amendment inanity by Sarah Palin, who might like to be president but apparently has never read the Bill of Rights. (And who, ironically, led a loud protest herself against White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's use of the r-word to describe the learning-disabled. Implied lesson? N-word: OK. R-word: Baaaad.)
For starters, this Dr. Laura brouhaha had nothing to do with the First Amendment, except that the amendment grants Schlessinger the freedom to be as obnoxious as she chooses.
Nowhere does the First Amendment entitle her, you or me to say controversial things without being criticized. You can speak your mind, but so can everyone else. If they think you're a doofus, they're equally free to say you're a doofus.
God bless America.
The real issue, though, lies in the question I heard during this controversy and have heard for decades: Why can black people, if they choose, say the dreaded n-word at will, while a white person who utters the word is greeted with howls of outrage and branded a racist?
That query typically is followed by related ones: Isn't this a double standard? Are black people hypersensitive? Are they inclined to overplay the race card?
The answers are self-evident to anyone who has thought about the matter for more than 30 seconds.
Ultimately, the n-word issue isn't just about race. Yes, it's a specifically racial term that carries enormous baggage, including centuries of slavery and discrimination.
Still, I don't think black people on the whole are that much more sensitive about the n-word than anyone else is about a lot of other words.
I grew up in rural Kentucky. I still have many rural tastes, euphemisms and habits.
My fiancée, Liz, regularly refers to me in public and private as "a total redneck."
It makes me laugh. I kind of enjoy it, in fact.
That's because: a) She loves me; b) she likes rednecks generally; c) she grew up on a tobacco farm in a community called Possum Ridge and arguably is more of a redneck than I am.
Were I to hear Paris Hilton on television throwing out barbs about rednecks and trailer trash, I would seethe. As a child, I lived for a time in a trailer park; she lived in a mansion. Liz gets to call me a redneck; Paris had better not.
But Paris can make all the cracks she wants to about heiresses.
Similarly, because I'm a Pentecostal, I occasionally refer to myself as a holy roller. My congregation used to have a bowling team that we named the Holy Rollers. If a member of my church calls me a holy roller, I take it in good fun; he's saying it in camaraderie, commiseration, affection and self-deprecation. He's in the same boat I am.
But when I hear Pentecostals referred to as holy rollers by those who don't believe as we do — by Episcopalians or Baptists or Jews or atheists — I don't take it in good fun. I take it as it's generally meant: as an insult.
It's not the terminology per se. It's the context. It's the person who's saying it. People on the inside can say it. People on the outside can't. There's no mystery here.
If you're a white man with a Georgia drawl, you can, like Jeff Foxworthy, make a fortune telling "You might be a redneck if ..." jokes. If you're Chris Rock, you probably ought to go easy on the Merle Haggard and Skoal routines.
Rock, however, can say the n-word with impunity. He's a black guy from an urban housing project. Foxworthy mustn't ever utter that word. Nor, for that matter, should he want to.
Which leads me to a final point. I've heard white people phrase the dilemma like this: "Why do black people get to use that word, but we don't get to?"
Get to? Is there some sort of n-word prize of which I'm unaware? Is there any sense of privilege or fulfillment that comes from insulting people's skin color? Is your life in any way diminished by the n-word's absence?
If you do feel loss from being denied that word, what does that feeling say about you?
To me, none of this is about political correctness.
It has even less to do with the First Amendment.
It's about common sense and consideration for others' feelings.