“Offensive speech” was once one of my specialties. I was paid to listen to it.
In my lawyering days I represented radio companies who employed what we called “shock jocks” – male DJ’s who hosted programs known for (and popular with certain audiences because of ) their provocative, borderline-if-not-racist, ugly language.
If a radio personality made a particularly egregious statement on air, station management might receive complaints from community groups and/or advertisers. Corporate would then involve lawyers (like me and my colleagues). The DJ’s would be disciplined – usually a reprimand or a suspension – and told to immediately stop using such despicable language.
Some of them resisted the corporate dictate – in the name of freedom of speech.
I came up with the bright idea that radio on-air talent and their programming staff would benefit from training – surely, I thought naively, the DJ’s who said such awful stuff simply didn’t understand why their on-air remarks were so offensive.
After all, when I was first dating my (then non-Jewish) husband-to-be, one of his relatives used the word “Jew” as a verb in a family conversation. I was shocked; I’d never heard the phrase he uttered. I rationalized that this relative didn’t intend it in an offensive way towards me, who he hardly knew; he just didn’t understand why it was so offensive.
I optimistically hoped that the radio “shock jocks” might change their ways if they understood why the terms and phrases they sometimes used to describe people of different ethnicities, genders, religions or race were so offensive.
After doing some fascinating (what can I say? I love language.) research on the history of how ethnic, gender, racial and religious slurs and stereotypes develop, I drafted a how-and-why-you-should-avoid-saying-them-on-air manual called “Words Hurt and Harm.” The radio company approved this manual – it was actually more of a booklet – and distributed it for training purposes.
“Words Hurt and Harm” was received, as I recall, with nice praise from corporate – – and with great merriment by some of the DJ’s on the receiving end.
Some of the most clever talent made fun – on air, of course – of our (“the lawyers’) attempt to get them to clean up their on-air acts. They described the booklet – and us – as:
“political correctness run amok”
“lawyering the hell out of radio”
And my favorite – “When is the last time a lawyer handed you something to help you be funny?”
The other day I unearthed a decade-old podcast of a radio talk show where two popular DJ’s had a great time picking apart the “Words Hurt and Harm” booklet. (Feel free to google it and take a listen.) You can hear them explaining why we, “the lawyers”, had it all wrong.
The talk show hosts defended their comments by explaining that they were intended to be entertainment. To make listeners laugh, which they did. And the offensive comments made by the DJ’s were, they claimed, based on real life experiences – not rooted in prejudice or racism. They maintained they were only saying on-air what their listeners really thought, but didn’t say out loud.
How quaint this discussion from 2006 sounded to my nearly 2016 ears.
Look where we are now. It has become acceptable, part of the anticipated norm, even, for some politicians and commentators (no names here!) to make the most outrageous of public comments – coming very close, if not head on, to ethnic, gender, religious and racial stereotyping and slurs – yet their audiences do not protest, they cheer. They are not disciplined for their offensive speech, hardly; they are applauded!
Maybe the radio “shock jocks” had it right. They were simply saying out loud what their listeners were really thinking.
And perhaps these politicians and commentators have become today’s “shock jocks”.
They make provocative comments designed to offend and get them attention. And attention they get. The media publicize their remarks. People then bemoan the comments on social media, how awful, can you believe he or she really said that. But talk moves on.
Fortified by current horrific national and world events that play right into inner biases and beliefs, we seem to be tolerating language we wouldn’t have thought acceptable only a decade ago.
Which is the most terrifying part. Because these politicians and commentators are not entertainers. They do not report to corporate management who will issue them diversity and sensitivity training manuals and tell them to change their language or risk being fired.
Words may still “hurt and harm.” But to some speakers and their listeners, what we once thought of “offensive” speech no longer is.