|Dr. Laura Schlessinger may just be the most controversial talk-show guru ever to hit the air waves, surpassing even conservative Rush Limbaugh as both the most loved and most hated personality on radio (and now television). Her claim that homosexuals are "biological errors" created a firestorm that resulted in a thriving anti-Schlessinger Web site (stopdrlaura.com) but intense support from the Religious Right.
At least 250,000 people attempt to call her radio program every week, while 18 to 20 million more tune in to hear her on topics that range from relationships to religious values. Her Web site dispenses not only her five best-selling books, but coffee mugs, tapes, T-shirts ("I am my kid's mom," one coyly proclaims) and techniques for political activism. In spite of outraged protests from gays, lesbians, and other supporters of tolerance, Paramount put her television show on the air in September 2000.
Mean Dr. Laura
Though seen as a dispenser of indispensable advice by millions, Dr. Laura claims she doesn't give advice. "I preach, teach, and nag," she was quoted as saying in 1999.1 "But it's not a shrink show. I give my never-to-be humble opinion." And humble she is not. "I'm very grateful that God put me in the right place," she piously expounds. Curt and abrupt with callers who don't measure up, she is quick to impart not only her opinions but abrasive and even abusive commentary as well. She has not hesitated to call those she sees as morally unfit, "sluts," "bums," and, according to Lilith magazine, "sickening," "selfish," "stupid," "gutless," "termite," and "pig" as well.2
Dr. Laura's intolerance is not confined merely to name-calling. Besides trashing gays as "deviants," and same-sex marriages as "despicable," she has said of feminists, "They nauseate and sicken me."3 Even more shocking was her treatment of a Connecticut eighth-grader for an award-wining essay on free speech on the Internet. Attacking the girl by name, she maliciously asserted: "If she was my daughter, I'd probably put her up for adoption. . . .When she makes her marriage vows, and her husband has sex with someone else, let's see if she thinks that this philosophy works. She also suggested that the girl be "sacrificed," Inca style!4 Apparently "family values" only count if the members of the family toe the party line.
Dr. Laura's Moralistic Values
"Schlessinger's platform," says Sarah Blustain in Lilith, the independent Jewish women's magazine, "could have been written by the Religious Right."5 Called moralistic and dogmatic by her detractors, Dr. Laura, a convert to Orthodox Judaism, stridently asserts that abortions are murder, sex outside of marriage is a sin, no one should divorce except in the case of abuse, and that mothers should stay home with their children. The accusation that Dr. Laura is moralistic is hard to dispute. On the subject of sex before marriage, for example, she writes in her book The Ten Commandments, "Holy sex is between husband and wife. . . .Unholy sex is everything else."6 Hopping full-tilt onto the "family values" bandwagon, she smugly decries women who dare to have careers instead of staying home with their children (in spite of the fact that she has a teenage son at home). Reinforcing this advice, her Web site has had links to magazines and organizations such as At Home Mother magazine and Full Time Parents.org.
Being married is not only the sole permissible ticket to sex but apparently to mental stability as well. In August 2000, a man who needed a trustworthy executor for his will called in to her radio program to ask Dr. Laura if she thought he should name his sister. When Dr. Laura learned that the sister was not married, she advised the man to pick a married person. A single woman, she claimed, would be too unfocused and unstable.7 Apparently, based on her comments in this program, Dr. Laura imagines that single young women are all dithery and intent on only one thing-getting a man. Ironically, social science research actually shows that married women have higher rates of depression and instability than single women.8 But Dr. Laura, as we will soon see in more detail, is not troubled by what legitimate research shows.
Religious morality looms large in her thinking. It is a religious point of view that brooks no opposition. When Skeptic magazine published its issue on the "God Question," she demanded that her name be dropped from its editorial board. When Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer called to discuss her resignation, she replied: "There is a God. Period. End of discussion."9 Shermer pointed out that the arguments presented in the magazine came from writings of theologians and philosophers of the last 2,000 years, but she angrily responded, "Arrogant all. God is not open for discussion." When Shermer asked "Which God?" her answer was "the God of Abraham" (which she clarified to include Christianity and Islam, as well as Judaism). To hell, apparently both figuratively and literally, with Hinduism, Buddhism, and the rest of the world's religions.
Dr. Laura as Hypocrite
Dr. Laura's pious brand of morality allows for no weaknesses, no dissension, and no slack. But does she measure up? Not according to her detractors. One of the criticisms most leveled against her is hypocrisy, and with good reason. Under the heading "Doctor, Heal Thyself: Hypocrisy in Lauraland," the Newsguy Web site lists the following tidbits:
Schlessinger's brand of moralism apparently includes stretching the truth. In her book The Ten Commandments (ironically enough), she calls herself a "licensed psychotherapist."12 Her Ph.D., however is in physiology, not psychology. Though she does have an MFCC (a certificate in marriage, family, and child counseling), the State of California, where she resides, does not consider her a psychotherapist. In fact, it is illegal in California to call oneself a psychotherapist without a state license, which she does not have.13 No one could receive an MFCC without knowing about this requirement; it is common knowledge in the psychological community. Whatever one may think of the requirement for state licenses, her claim that she is a "licensed psychotherapist" is on shaky ethical ground.
Dr. Laura has avoided this criticism in recent times by steering away from calling what she does psychological advice. According to her Web site FAQ, her purpose is "to dispense morals, values, principles, and ethics," which is safer and much more subjective.
Is Dr. Laura's Advice Good?
Though she does not qualify as a psychotherapist either legally or by custom, this does not necessarily prove that Dr. Laura's advice is worthless. Ann Landers doesn't have a degree in psychology either but her advice is often sensible; in fact, far more sensible and less strident than Schlessinger's. So it's only fair to ask whether Dr Laura's psychological advice has any merit. That depends on the advice. Some of the ideas in her earliest books, Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives and Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives is consistent with "kick-in-the-butt" cognitive therapy, as practiced by psychologists such as Albert Ellis. (The message: Take responsibility for your beliefs and your mistakes. You can change if you want to. Now do it.) The demand for individuals to stop playing victim and blaming others for their plight is recognized by many psychologists as desirable. Research shows that cognitive therapy is the single best treatment for depression, for example. However, calling people who are struggling with their life issues "pigs," "sluts," and "stupid" goes far beyond even what the irascible Dr. Ellis advocates, and may represent a breach of psychotherapeutic ethics, which call for respecting one's clients.
Dr. Laura vs. the Research
More serious than Dr. Laura's name-calling and fudging about her credentials is her willingness to play fast and loose with research. Increasingly, her on-air time is spent on parenting. Much of what she says is both out of sync with social science research and pernicious as well. In her latest book, Parenting by Proxy: Don't Have Them If You Can't Raise Them, she continues her shrill attacks on abortion, birth control, feminism, and, most especially, single mothers and mothers who work outside the home.14
On air, she has backed up her rants by citing studies from Gary Bauer's ultra-conservative Family Research Council.15 The FRC is an advocacy group, not a social science research institute, and hardly an objective source.
In Parenting by Proxy, the citations aren't much better. Most of those that support her position come from newspaper articles that are hardly persuasive or authoritative. Were the studies reputable? Was the research described correctly or was it distorted? We don't know. However, my experience with newspaper articles on behavioral topics makes me very suspicious indeed of such sources. Schlessinger rarely cites an actual academic journal except to distort and attack it. In other words, very little of the "documentation" in the book comes from the kinds of primary sources considered appropriate and reputable by academic researchers.
What does real social science research say about the effects of working moms on their children? Typical of the conclusions that most psychologists and sociologists have reached, based on years of research, is the one cited in Engendering Psychology, a recently published textbook: ". . . there is no scientific evidence that women shortchange their infants and toddlers by working outside the home. Not only are the much-touted negative effects of day care questionable at best, but studies usually show that working mothers spend close to the same amount of time with their children as do the so-called stay-at-home mothers."16
Social science research also shows the following: women with multiple roles (e.g., job and family) have higher self-esteem; working has positive impacts on self-esteem; women satisfied with their roles, whether as homemakers or in a career, are better for their children than women who are dissatisfied. As for the "menace" of day care, overall, studies show that language and cognitive development, as well as relationships with the mother, are more directly linked to family qualities and children's temperament than to whether the child has been in day care.17
Dr. Laura's misrepresentation of research does more than merely distort. Many women, already made to feel guilty by a culture of ingrained and outdated stereotypes, will feel even worse. Trapped between the false dilemma of economic necessity and the desire for self-expression on the one hand, and feelings of duty to their children on the other, women who buy into Dr. Laura's rap will lose no matter which choice they make. Nor will Schlessinger's call for "sacrifice" or her haughty dismissal of the idea that wives work because of economic necessity, be useful to the divorced mother who works two jobs to keep a roof over her children's heads or the middle-class family struggling to save for their children's education.
Unquestionably, some concerns that Schlessinger raises are important ones that many of us share. Too many people are overly self-involved, lots of people who have kids shouldn't, raising decent children with good moral values is very important, many parents don't give children the attention they need. No good evidence, however, suggests that these attitudes are the province solely of two-career families.
Dr. Laura's Activism
Schlessinger doesn't confine her intolerant moralizing to her books and programs, she is a powerful social activist as well. Her Web site provides detailed instructions on how to protest on behalf of her ideas as well as links to advocacy groups. This last year's effort was a campaign against pornography on the Internet, including a vicious attack on the American Library Association. Calling the ALA "evil" because it had a link to a Columbia University Web site for teens ("Go Ask Alice") that frankly discussed (among other issues) sexuality, she distorted and misrepresented the ALA stand to make it sound like the ALA was saying porno for "children" is O.K.18
In Bed with the Religious Right
The agenda of the fundamentalist Right has long been of concern to humanists. Now Dr. Laura has been added to their arsenal. Adored and supported by the ultra-conservative Christian Right, Dr. Laura has appeared on television programs like Pat Robertson's "700 Club," Robert Schiller's "Hour of Power," and the increasingly political James Dobson's "Focus on the Family."19 The Family Research Council has placed national ads on her behalf while other conservative groups have run prominent ads in their magazines.
Others are concerned with where this unpleasant political coupling may lead. Dismissing those who consider Dr. Laura just another Howard Stern or Dear Abby, Blustain writes in Lilith, "Laura Schlessinger represents those who have made serious inroads into our political dialogue, and anyone concerned with the encroachments of the Religious Right would be wise to watch Schlessinger as well."20
If Laura Schlessinger succeeds in her Internet censorship, it will be only a beginning. Even if her television shows bombs (as of this writing, it is "temporarily" off the air), this is a woman who will not give up. She is a not-so-hidden menace to those of us who care passionately about tolerance, free speech, and respect for individual differences and individual rights. Chances are, her fanatical conservative social agenda will not succeed on a large scale. But it behooves us to add our voices to those who oppose her, as extra insurance that she does not get her way.
Dr. Sharon Presley has a Ph.D. in social psychology. She teaches psychology and critical thinking courses at California State University, Hayward, and is the Executive Director of Resources for Independent Thinking (www.rit.org), a nonprofit educational organization. Her forthcoming book, Think for Yourself, will be published by Ronin Press later this year.