Bill Maher on Rush Limbaugh, Freedom of Speech, and Misogyny

Last week the right wing spent a lot of time claiming that there was a double standard according to which conservatives like Rush Limbaugh who say offensive things get excoriated in the media, whereas liberals like Bill Maher get a free pass.

Maher himself also tweeted that people should drop the pressure to get Limbaugh thrown off the air after he apologized. Maher lost his nightly network TV show Politically Incorrect in 2001 for agreeing with Dinesh Desouza that, contrary to George W. Bush’s claims, the 9/11 terrorists had not acted in a cowardly manner. He said,

We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly. You’re right.

Burned as he was by the attacks on his sponsors over this bit of controversial honesty about his opinion, which was a fair enough viewpoint (even if wrong) that he should have had the right to express without hysteria, it is understandable he is leery of attempts to police discourse through people’s sponsors over disagreements, as a general rule. But I think there is more to be said about the issue. Here was his response to this week’s controversy on his show Real Time With Bill Maher, followed by my responses to his points:

First, Rush did more than make a bad joke, he made deep, sustained, potentially slanderous character assaults and lied repeatedly about the nature of Fluke’s testimony. He tried to bully and slut-shame all sexually active women in the country who are on contraception. In a disgracefully sexist double standard he conspicuously disparaged no men in the process. He degraded a young woman for defending her fellow students’ rights to medical necessities to be provided in their health care. He was an arm of a callous and cruel right wing patriarchal moralism that first has fought tooth and claw to keep in place a health care system where people are dependent on their employers for their health care plans, and now is vociferously fighting for right wing employers’ rights to use that leverage over their employees to dictate their private sexual behavior (or at least over whether they get pregnant from it).

Limbaugh’s cracks to the effect that “if Ms. Fluke and the Georgetown women want us to pay for their contraception, we want to see the videos” are expressing not the alleged absurdity of “the government paying for people’s recreational sex” as Limbaugh claims. Rather what Limbaugh was expressing and embodying was this disgusting attitude that if you take our money, you sacrifice your dignity and may as well be a slave.

Fluke was talking about coverage of employee or student health plans. Those are earned by employees or students either by their labor or by their scholarship. For women to have to go through employers who take a slaver’s attitude that decides whether you can get what you medically need after you have earned it based on whether they want to pay for it, is disgusting. Essentially Limbaugh’s jokes about forcing the women to make videos in exchange for contraception coverage elides the fact that women earn that coverage and the government is only trying to protect their equal access to what they medically need being given to them once they have earned it.

So what Limbaugh did was way more than make a bad joke. He expressed a morally abusive and denigrating ideology and did so in a way, using epithets, which was designed to simultaneously morally bully and shame any women who dissent from that harmful morality regime–even when their testimony does not bother to defend their sexual freedom or reproductive rights themselves but merely to emphasize the other medical necessities birth control aids with. He tried to whip up moral disgust against women who want the health coverage they earned and who want equal access to the health care they need that men get for Viagra. He tried to whip up feelings of moral superiority and reinforce the sense of entitlement of the owner class in this society that looks at everyone who receives from them either employment or entitlements through their tax payments as essentially a slave with no autonomy or dignity because of their dependency.

This is cultural moral warfare. Limbaugh was trying to enforce a cruel and abusive morality. He was not just expressing ideas. He was imposing them on Fluke and all women like her by using words and taunts that tried to strip them of their dignity and disqualify their ideas. He was trying to make it impossible for them to stand up for themselves. He was trying to send the message to them they will be grossly mischaracterized and disparaged for daring to assert their rights either to their health or to their sexual liberty. He is trying to control their behavior.

It is return cultural moral warfare for such women to try to control his behavior and silence the speech that has for centuries been used to silence and legally control them. They have every right to use their own free speech to try to silence someone who uses his speech to try to silence them and strip them of their very rights to health and unencumbered sexual happiness. Especially when he does so in such a piggishly sexist way. They have every right to send the message to all men that we will not get away with the use of such bullying language and taunts with no social or career consequences.

Ideas have power. They can be tools of oppression. In America we have the rights to express whatever ideas we like. No one is advocating for legal action against Limbaugh—except maybe for slander, which may be legally appropriate under the circumstances. Those laws do exist to prevent such false character assassinations that harm private citizens.

But we also retain the moral right to make people pariahs for disparaging and taunting black people with the n word. And it’s by doing that that we take moral control of the public discourse away from the racists.

It is long fucking overdue that someone take moral control of the public discourse away from the sexists who regularly create hostile environments that effectively exclude and intimidate away women’s voices. Part of preserving genuine freedom of speech in practice is using private means of ensuring a climate of at least minimal respect and decency, and pushing back with full moral force against those who try to bully an anti-egalitarian and degrading archaic morality onto vulnerable groups using hate speech. And the word “slut” is hate speech. So is cunt—at least as used by an American or towards an American woman by someone who understands the nastiness of the word in our cultural context.

You want to argue for viewpoints you think are true and I think are sexist or racist. Okay, I can respect that. We can disagree. But throwing around the “n” word or calling women “sluts”, “cunts”, or “prostitutes”, and demanding they give you sex tapes in return for the health care they earn from their employers is not discourse, it’s moral bullying. And we don’t need to stand for it without morally pushing back and asserting our more humane standards which demand inclusion of people of all kinds—including the long disparaged female half of the population.

No one is taking away any one else’s freedom of speech. But having a big microphone in this country comes with at least some moral responsibilities, like that you not use it to cudgel vulnerable and routinely slandered groups with moral impunity. No one is taking away Limbaugh’s legal rights. We’re fighting for a climate defined by egalitarian morality rather than the old school double-standard based, sex-repressing, slut-shaming, woman-silencing, religion-revering moralities Limbaugh is embodying as an astounding, repugnant self-caricature.

BUT. All that said. I am worried that the advertisers are getting the wrong message and fleeing Limbaugh for the wrong reason. Rather than learning that what they should specifically never support is degrading language (and taunts) towards women (or other groups), which is directly comparable to using the “n” word for demeaning and excluding blacks, advertisers are instead asking to be pulled from content which is “controversial” and “likely to stir negative sentiment from a very small percentage of the listening public”.

They should not avoid supporting controversial speech altogether. Controversial speech which stirs negative sentiments among “a very small percentage of the listening public” is in itself a good thing that advertisers should stand up for out of the moral principle of free speech. Exclusionary, bullying speech which degrades half the population and on that account alone rightly offends at least half of the population was the problem with Limbaugh.

Unfortunately, hitting advertisers in their pocketbook only encourages them to continue thinking with their pocketbook and does not teach them to make moral discriminations. Therefore, fear for their pocketbook means they are more likely to defund minority controversial viewpoints that deserve public airing and more likely to cave to moralistic minorities who have no legitimate grievance except that others disagree with them. This is indeed a problematic unintended consequence.

Moving on: Bill is not a just a “potty mouth”, he is a misogynist. He constantly trades in denigrating stereotypes towards women and uses words that are not merely “dirty” (which would be fine) or harsh criticisms of women which are merely fact based and fair, but he uses words like “cunt” and “twat” which are equivalent words for women what the “n” word is for blacks.

I admit to being a bit sympathetic but ultimately not convinced by his appeal to his status as a comic. I do grant comedians (like satirists) much greater latitude to be the national court jesters who may offend all equally—as long as their routines are not rooted in abusive hostility to the groups skewered or perpetuate injustices against them. I see satire as a valuable vehicle for truth and I think that coming from comedians who aren’t mean-spirited or socially clueless, they are impersonal enough to be inoffensive. Coming between friends with an established mutual respect and no malice between them, otherwise offensive jokes can also be totally copacetic. And to an extent Maher is right that the proof that it’s all in fun is that the jokes make people laugh rather than call for the comedian’s head.

But Maher’s takedowns of women are consistent with his dubious actual adversarial conception of relations between men and women. His actual thinking about them can genuinely be analyzed for misogyny quite apart from a word choice or two. And the choices of the words “cunt” and “twat” for attacking women, even in stand up, are as out of place as resorting to the “n” word would be in almost any context that a white comic might take recourse to it. It’s the word choice that expresses hostility to women themselves.

When he says,

But if I offended women I’m sorry, I have no problem saying I’m sorry. I don’t know why women would want to ally themselves with Sarah Palin, I don’t know why an insult to her is an insult to all women, but if it is I’m sorry.

This is a notpology (and not the good kind). This is like saying that if you selectively call one black political figure that is disreputable the “n” word all black people shouldn’t be offended because they shouldn’t have wanted to be associated with that guy anyway. It doesn’t fly.

Relatedly, I have in the past written on the general moral rightness and wrongness of taking offense and talked about why Limbaugh’s language matters in the posts in the posts Moral Offense is Not Morally Neutral and Why Misogynistic Language Matters. I also discussed why, as someone who grew up an evangelical Christian, I am distinctly disgusted and disillusioned by the silence (and support) for Rush by evangelical leaders. Finally, and possibly most importantly, in my post How Atheist Reddit Doesn’t Get It, I explained in more detail how curtailing hate speech through private means (not repressive legal ones) helps free speech flourish by including more speakers and not letting the bullies who create a hostile environment exclude them.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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