Saturday, August 21, 2010

The doctor is out

The recent collapse of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio show is a fascinating spectacle. I can't bring myself to listen to the audio -- I can hardly read the transcript without looking away in embarrassment. And then there's the self-justifying pity party she's throwing for herself in the media. And then there are the "She had it coming" responses, some of them very perceptive, like this one by Jesse Singal at The New Republic. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here -- and Dr. Laura is wrong about what they are (no, the white-people-are-the-real-victims act has not been vindicated, and no, the "first amendment" is not under assault, as Linda Holmes explains so capably). Here's the lesson I'd like to highlight:

People who give advice professionally, in public, are not really there to help. They are there to entertain.

An advice columnist for a newspaper/magazine/website is supposed to churn out entertaining copy. His/her job is not to serve the individuals who write in with their problems. His/her job is to be pithy and fun to read. (This is one illustration of the larger reality that mainstream journalists work to please their sponsors, not to inform the public; for more on this phenomenon, see Jonathan Schwarz.) I rarely come away from an advice column feeling enlightened, and in fact I'm often frustrated by what seems to me to be a terrible answer. Advice columnists often seem to be missing the point; they'll zero in on a minor detail in the letter and address that in their response, or they'll interpret the situation in a way that seems unwarranted, leaving me wondering whether they cut the relevant details out of the letter or just made them up out of nowhere. But I read them anyway. I'm a sucker for "Dear Prudence" at Slate, and not just because I love that song. (I draw the line at watching the videos, though -- I'm not that desperate for entertainment.) Like many other advice-givers, Emily Yoffe gives answers that tell you more about her than they do about how to fix problems. But she writes well, and she's quick on her feet, which makes the "chat" editions particularly entertaining. And that's really all I want. Which is good, because that is really all she's there for.

The dynamic is more obvious if you've ever picked up a women's general-interest or fashion magazine. They all have advice columns, and in my experience, they are all terrible. Wit is not as easy as it looks. Neither is wisdom. And it's hard to shake the feeling that the letters are fabricated, making the whole thing a pointless waste of time. (Would anyone really write to these magazines with their problems? You've seen the "letters to the editor" they publish, right? If not, this recurring feature at The Awl will give you the idea.)

Some time ago Sarah Bunting started an advice column called The Vine on her blog, at least partly in response to the fact that professional/syndicated advice columnists tend to be awful. She's very good at the actually-giving-pertinent-advice thing, for sure, but it's obvious that her success is not just a matter of skill; it's also a matter of format. She's not tasked with filing 1000 words that include at least three questions and answers. She can reproduce as much of the letter as is necessary to make the problem intelligible, and answer it at as much length as the situation requires. The result is still entertaining, but it's not only entertaining, and the entertainment value does not depend on her making an example out of the letter-writer. I mention it because the contrast is instructive -- look at how that advice column works to understand how most advice columns do not work.

The only popularly distributed advice columns that are actually service-oriented are the ones that give medical advice or weightlifting advice -- the ones where expertise in a specific field is sought and dispensed. ("Dear Dr. Brazelton, I have chronic eczema between my toes...") Those are also much drier and less entertaining to read, and they're less common, because you can't farm them out to some pseudonymous editorial assistant.

Which brings me to Dr. Laura.
The "Dr." part of her radio handle is meant to suggest that she falls into this latter category -- she's a professional who will give you the benefit of her expertise. It's a ruse, of course; as is so often pointed out, she has a PhD in physiology, and I never once heard anyone call her to ask for academic advice on physical fitness. She's an entertainer, and her job is to say things that will keep an audience listening (which in turn sells ads), not to help the individuals who call her with their problems. It's the same dynamic as with any print advice columnist, but more intense, because it happens live. She doesn't have the time to read the letter, pick an angle, and craft a pithy reply; she has to react in real time. That's how her shtick evolved: she cuts the listeners off before they can fully explain their problems, ostensibly because she doesn't want to listen to a lot of self-pitying nonsense, but really because that way, she stays in control. When she, not the caller, is the one who defines what the problem actually is, then she gives herself permission to respond with one of her preset solutions. Which, after all, is what the audience tuned in to hear.

I heard a lot of Dr. Laura growing up, because my mom liked to listen in the house and in the car. I could understand the appeal. Shrill as she was, Dr. Laura was on to something with her no-nonsense discipline -- her mission was to get adults to "put on their big-girl pants," as they say. Dr. Laura articulated and attempted to enforce a rigid set of expectations and rules, and a lot of people out there could afford to hold themselves to higher or at least more consistent standards of behavior, so I'm more or less on board with that goal in the abstract. We might disagree on doctrine, but I don't object to the preaching per se.What I didn't like was the ritual sacrifice portion of the program, the giving-individualized-advice charade. Dr. Laura's show inadvertently demonstrated why rigid moral codes are out of fashion, because the collision of her ideals with real-world situations was frequently ugly.

"Hey, they call her," my mother would point out if I protested that Dr. Laura was being downright mean. And that's absolutely true -- with advice columnists on paper there's always the possibility that the letter itself is a fiction, but these were apparently real people seeking advice, people who claimed to be regular listeners, and yet were apparently unable to predict that Dr. Laura would treat them exactly the way she treated everyone else. (It's like on Supernanny -- who signs up for that show without watching an episode or two? How is it that Jo keeps managing to catch people completely off guard when she does the same thing every place she goes?) After a while you start to realize that the people who call Dr. Laura (or any other advice-giver) are really looking for validation. Just like the parents on Supernanny who seem convinced that this time Jo will say, "You're not the problem -- you just got stuck with impossible kids." Dr. Laura's callers want to be told that their situation is special and different, and so they're right to do or feel whatever it is they're doing or feeling in response, even though it goes against what they'd usually think is right. That kind of self-deception is precisely the red meat that Dr. Laura thrives on, especially when it's coupled with emotional vulnerability, as it usually is. (No one feeling good about themselves volunteers to be abused on national radio.) If these callers are really that self absorbed, I would sometimes find myself thinking, perhaps they deserve a little Dr.-Laura-style roughing-up. But there was, and is, no real excuse for the nastiness with which Dr. Laura carved up her victims, and her ruthless efficiency in dealing with callers makes it uncomfortably clear that she is not there to help. She's there to reinforce her brand. Every call just goes to show how right she always is, and you can buy her books if you want to have the answers without the formality of the questions.

And that brings me back to this whole racial-rant thing. First of all, let's be clear about what the problem actually is, and on that front I want to give major credit to Paul Farhi of The Washington Post for summarizing the controversy accurately:
Laura Schlessinger, the blunt-spoken, sometimes controversial radio talk-show host whose racially charged comments drew widespread condemnation last week, said Tuesday that she will end her radio career at the end of the year.

The announcement by the host of the "Dr. Laura" program was a stunning denouement after a week in which Schlessinger was widely criticized for describing an African American caller to her program as "hypersensitive" for taking offense at a neighbor's racial taunting. To illustrate her claim of a racial double standard, she said that black comedians often use the N-word on TV without criticism, but the word is forbidden for white people. She used the racial epithet, unexpurgated, 11 times in five minutes, despite her caller's protests.
Her error was not simply saying the "N-word." That was a dimension, a symptom, of her larger mistake, which was responding with her typical, proudly insensitive "if anyone's a victim here, it's me" routine to a woman who was hoping to have a conversation about sensitive racial issues. I'm not happy with the campaign to "boycott Dr. Laura because she used the N-word on the air," because that's an oversimplification of the problem, and it gives her an easy out, a victim card to play. She protests that she didn't call anyone by that name, and that's true. But as Farhi notes, the use of the word was a problem mostly because the caller specifically asked her to refrain, and she went on saying it, convinced somehow that she could prove her caller was wrong to be offended if she kept on offending her.

Focusing on that one word is a mistake, because the entire exchange is both horrifying and hilarious: Dr. Laura not only accused this woman of being "hypersensitive" to racial issues; she went on to advertise that she herself sees nothing wrong with assuming all black people think and act a certain way because they're black (which is, ahem, the definition of racism), and she backed herself up with what she thought was a flattering story about how she jokes around with her black bodyguard. I mean, that's not even the usual weak self-defense of "Some of my best friends are black." That's "I know I'm not a racist because the black person I pay to spend time with me never complains." It's truly amazing to see this woman who prides herself on routing self-deception in others suddenly broadcasting the depths of her own capacity to self-deceive.

What I can't figure out is why "Jade" thought Dr. Laura, of all people, was the one to go to with this problem. Normally I figure people know, deep down, that Dr. Laura will tell them they're causing their own problems, and they feel so isolated or needy or desperate that they call her just to have their self-loathing reinforced. But this is not the sort of problem that Dr. Laura's rigidity is designed to address, and I can't imagine what possessed Jade to think it might be. I mean, here's how Jade begins: "I'm having an issue with my husband where I'm starting to grow very resentful of him." Let's stop right there. I haven't listened to Dr. Laura's show in years, but I know already that her answer is going to be "You're hurting your marriage by being resentful, so grow up and get over it." The details do not matter. Domestic stability at all costs is the Dr. Laura way, and if your complaint has to do with how you feel about something intangible, God help you, because drill sergeant Schlessinger is about to come down on you hard. That sort of approach might work in some areas of life, but racial issues? And the fact that Dr. Laura turned out to be exactly the sort of racially clueless person that Jade resents is just the icing on the cake.

Dr. Laura's total humorlessness is a big part of what made her a success. Jesse Singal captures that exactly, in explaining that, no, Dr. Laura doesn't hate her callers:
It’s more that she hates human foibles, the complexity and gray areas and awkward, unwieldy social and familial arrangements that make homo sapiens such a simultaneously fascinating and infuriating species. This comes through clearest whenever, during the awkward silences she generates with the same efficiency with which China produces portable electronics, a caller laughs nervously. “Why are you laughing?” she’ll ask, like a robot who simply can’t understand the human behavior she’s observing.
That inability (or refusal) to access nuance -- to appreciate what humans call "humor" -- is also what brought Dr. Laura down last week. "I think you have too much sensitivity...and not enough sense of humor," she told Jade, a black woman who resents that her white husband's pals expect her to speak for Black People In General, and who further objects to Dr. Laura's defending that expectation ("If you're that hypersensitive about color and don't have a sense of humor, don't marry out of your race"). Jade had the impression that Dr. Laura was giving advice without understanding what the problem was, and she was right. That's often the case, and it's obvious that Dr. Laura really doesn't care; her job is to tell her listeners how right she is, over and over, and her callers are just means to that end. But this time she let herself go too far in a direction far outside her comfort zone, and the ensuing exchange revealed in ghastly detail that it's Dr. Laura whose "sense of humor" is skewed. "We've got a black man as president," she said, having brought up Obama herself for no reason at all, "and we have more complaining about racism than ever. I mean, I think that's hilarious." And suddenly Dr. Laura's judgment didn't seem so finely tuned after all.

Update: Just saw the Colbert Report segment on this. Very good -- and worth squirming through the audio excerpts for.


Anonymous said...

Mollie, I enjoyed your thoughts on Dr. Laura. I, too, was raised on her radio show (in the car, in the kitchen), and listening to her was like scratching a mosquito bite. I wonder how you feel about one of my favorite writers, Miss Manners. Re: commentators as (strictly) entertainers -- you should read David Foster Wallace's essay, "Host," in "Consider the Lobster." He trails a Dr. Laura-ish radio guy and writes dispassionately about the world of talk radio. -Dan Barrett

Mollie said...

Hi Dan! You know, I don't really know "Miss Manners" except by reputation. But I think you've identified an exception -- or maybe she's just akin to the medical-expert kind of advice columnist instead of the "Dear Abby" kind.

It seems to me (based only on the way people say "Miss Manners recommends...") that her function is to be an authority, and not just a witty dispenser of common sense. There's a right and wrong answer when it comes to what's polite. But we need someone to tell us what it is. Miss Manners is probably most useful when she's least entertaining, and vice versa.