Why Misogynistic Language Matters

In response to the vileness of Rush Limbaugh giving Physicalist pause about whether to consume any right wing media (even out of concern for rational fairness), Bret asks:

I’m curious: do you see how conservatives verbally address women as more offensive than their stance on pretty much anything else, from their treatment of the poor in this country to the violent stance they take towards people in other countries?

I don’t like seeing women called names, but in perspective… it’s one of the more harmless things about conservatives. I’m more offended that they want to limit a woman’s access to birth control than that they call women who use birth control “sluts.”

Am I alone on this one, or are liberals just hyper-sensitive to language as a result of the whole culture of political correctness?

While surely we should find policies that are needlessly and unjustly physically deadly or otherwise tangibly destructive abhorrent, that does not lessen the seriousness of intrinsic harms against persons and their dignity. Degrading treatment is wrong as an inherent disrespect if nothing else and it is inherently offensive. Limbaugh’s attacks are on women’s basic personhood, basic rights of citizenship, autonomy, dignity, respect as sexual agents and full moral people. They’re unjustified and malicious lies and slanders of character. They are disgraceful attempts to shame women over justifiable sex. They are dishonest attempts to mischaracterize important points in debate. They express negligently callous willful refusal to understand the important truths about women’s health. They perpetuate double standard attitudes about sexual ethics and rape, the practice of slut shaming, and obnoxiously hypocritical prurient patriarchal sexual prudery. They are also bullying acts by which a man of great resources and power bullies a vulnerable woman much younger and in a much more tenuous career situation by trashing her reputation for daring to speak out about health consequences of legislation that profoundly affected someone in similar shoes to her own.

All of this makes Limbaugh’s actions intrinsically repugnant and worthy of unequivocal, thorough moral denunciation, even if it has no further consequence whatsoever. This is not “hypersensitivity”, it’s proper sensitivity to appallingly abusive verbal treatment.

And usually wrongness of these kinds (and certainly in this case) is compounded with intricate links to ideas and institutions that it represents and perpetuates. Such systematically degrading language and concepts find “real world” forms in (or emerge in the first place in tandem with) systemic biases in institutions and in individual decisions. In other words, sometimes abusive language expresses abusive concepts coded into people by abusive institutions. Sometimes the language codes the ideas that code the institutions to be abusive in the first place. Typically it’s all a self reinforcing feedback loop of oppression or repression and disenfranchisement.

Language matters. Ideas are contained in language. Ideas create institutions and institutions create ideas and language. They’re a knot. You can’t untie any two parts without untying all three.

Your Thoughts?

________

There are some excellent replies in the comments section, so be sure to check them out. And there was also one comment that necessitated I write my next post, No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

 

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.

  • Ruth

    “1984″ had it right-control language and you limit thought. I remember when the 50ish secretaries were still called girls.

    • Yellow Thursday

      Coworkers and customers still call the employees (all female) of my workplace “girls.” I’ve tried to object, only to be told that there wasn’t anything wrong with it.

      I once asked a coworker (right before she retired) if she would call the bank president a “boy.” She said that she would, but she never did. She was one of the worst offenders, calling herself and her coworkers “the girls” despite railing against this from male managers. I never figured out how to clue her in to hypocricy.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Question: So if I wanted to make a derisive comment about the promiscuity of a woman, perhaps as a general statement of my distaste for what I might consider excessive emphasis on sex, what word should I use?

    Note that you can’t say that I shouldn’t make derisive comments, because that would take all insults out of play and so would go far beyond misogynistic language. And you can’t say that I shouldn’t consider promiscuity something to be derisive about or find distasteful, because that would indeed be imposing ideas on me, and in fact doing so very, very specifically. So, then, what should I do?

    This is the same sort of problem I have with the arguments against supposed insults that are gendered: if I want to insult a woman, why can’t I call her the term for a female dog? It’s a valid insult in my culture, just like the term for a man born out of wedlock is.

    Now, using it out of those contexts may be more problematic, I agree, but I read about this case and thought that this one was certainly borderline because promiscuity was, in fact, the point. Again, putting aside any idea that insulting is itself wrong, what insulting term should he have used?

    • Blue Duck

      Way to miss the point there, Verbose Stoic.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Care to expand? What point did I miss, specifically? Do you really think that I posted this comment aiming to miss the point or something?

    • ischemgeek

      Question: So if I wanted to make a derisive comment about the promiscuity of a woman a black person, perhaps as a general statement of my distaste for what I might consider excessive emphasis on race , what word should I use?

      (see also “So if I wanted to make a derisive comment about the homosexuality of a gay man… what word should I use?”)

      Note that you can’t say that I shouldn’t make derisive comments, because that would take all insults out of play and so would go far beyond misogynisticracist and homophobic language. And you can’t say that I shouldn’t consider promiscuity race or homosexuality something to be derisive about or find distasteful, because that would indeed be imposing ideas on me, and in fact doing so very, very specifically. So, then, what should I do?

      If you see why these questions are woefully inappropriate, you see why Blue Duck has an issue with your comment.

      In short, you’re assuming that the prejudice and bigotry those comments express is justified.

    • Dalillama

      And you can’t say that I shouldn’t consider promiscuity something to be derisive about or find distasteful,

      This right here is the crux of the problem. We absolutely can say that you shouldn’t consider promiscuity something to be derisive of, and if you find it distasteful, then don’t be promiscuous. Essentially, someone else’s sex life is none of your business, and you don’t get to put your own sexual proclivities on a pedestal from which you can look down upon those who don’t conform to your arbitrary standards. That’s not technically true of course, you can do that, but don’t be surprised when people consider you an asshole because of it.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      ischemgeek,

      The race example is a bad one because it’s not about a view someone holds or about behaviour they engage in, but is about something they don’t control. So it doesn’t fit. Homosexuality is, of course, controversial and has a lot more involved in it, so I don’t want to try to use that as an example since it will muddy the waters (Hint: Just because you feel really strongly that something is true doesn’t mean that everyone agrees. I don’t want to start getting into questions about whether or not religions or anyone should consider homosexuality moral or not. All I can say is that the moral code I’m working on hasn’t decided yet but is leaning not).

      But we might be able to get to the point through what you said here:

      In short, you’re assuming that the prejudice and bigotry those comments express is justified.

      The problem is that I was actually quite careful to avoid prejudice and bigotry. I limited it entirely to criticizing the behaviour: promiscuity. I acknowledged in another comment that the double standard might be one reason to call that out, but noted that Dan, well, didn’t use that one. So, again, if I just considered promiscuity worthy of derision, could I express that or not? And if I couldn’t because of prejudice and bigotry, what is it specifically?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Dalillama,

      Well, here’s the thing: is someone allowed to express derision for a behaviour that they think is immoral? Dan seems to think so, since his argument against the language is that it, in fact, is indeed expressing something immoral. But if people, then, can’t express their derision for promiscuity, then they can’t express their derision for more prudish sexual mores either. Or, perhaps, even for someone’s beliefs, be they religious or even potentially misogynistic. When do we get Quorum on an idea so that we can deride someone who doesn’t agree with it? So, to me, either you are allowed to deride other people’s behaviour and ideas or you aren’t. If you aren’t, then this is not a special case of offense. If you are, then this is at least arguably not a problematic case.

    • Stacy

      So if I wanted to make a derisive comment about the promiscuity of a woman,

      So, why would you want to do that, particularly? If you have a problem with promiscuity generally, you might say, “I think promiscuity is bad [because...].” If you’re objecting to a given individual’s promiscuity, what does her gender have to do with it?

      Oh, wait, I know–because there’s a long-history of a double standard which has male promiscuity given a pass, or even admired, so that there doesn’t even exist a derisive word meaning “promiscuous man”–and meanwhile female promiscuity is shamed by the use of terms like “slut”.

      Ya think?

    • Forbidden Snowflake

      Well, here’s the thing: is someone allowed to express derision for a behaviour that they think is immoral?

      Everyone is allowed to express derision for whatever they want. The point is what the target your choose to deride says about you.

      Dan seems to think so, since his argument against the language is that it, in fact, is indeed expressing something immoral.

      I don’t understand what this sentence means. Does Daniel supposedly claim that promiscuity is something immoral, or that slut-shaming is something immoral?

      But if people, then, can’t express their derision for promiscuity, then they can’t express their derision for more prudish sexual mores either.

      What? Why not?
      I mean, sure, if shaming people for being more promiscuous than myself is wrong, then shaming them for being more prudish than myself is also wrong. None of that should stop me from deriding those who seek to impose their prudish mores on others.

      Frankly, this is how I see the exchange between Daniel and Verbose Stoic (extremely condensed):
      Daniel: don’t call people sluts, it’s misogynistic
      VS: well how should I call those sluts so that you wouldn’t accuse me of misogyny?

      So yeah, missing the point. Quite so.

    • Forbidden Snowflake

      I limited it entirely to criticizing the behaviour: promiscuity.

      Then why are you so desperate for an epithet to apply to the person?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Stacy,

      This is exactly why I started dropping the “Is” in the later comments, because I knew that someone would take that literally. Although, maybe you aren’t, so if you aren’t I apologize.

      I try to avoid using derisive terms at all, which would make me more on at least one side of the accommodationist line. But a lot of people — and even Dan in these two posts — insist that sometimes you really ought to express derision about some ideas. So, if that’s someone’s schtick, then it applies to both sides of the debate. And so if someone did consider promiscuity worthy of derision, then they are equally allowed to express that.

      I’ve talked about the double standard before, and did say that that is indeed sexist and I wish there was an equivalent term for men. That’s not what I’m trying to get at, and if Dan was only going on about that then there wouldn’t be any debate at all.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Forbidden Snowflake,

      Your last point about looking for a term to apply to the person is actually a good one. Surprisingly, perhaps, I agree, and it almost had me saying “Fair enough; I was wrong.” Except for one thing: that isn’t what Dan argued, at least as far as I can see. I did talk about it being a general comment and saying that if it was a general issue then it would go beyond simple misogynistic language. So, if it was meant to be a general comment about not using terms that label the person, I agree but didn’t get that from Dan’s post.

      The other points are, I think, a bit off, but I’ve gone over them in a lot of places and don’t want to keep revisiting them. Suffice it to say that I don’t see challenging promiscuity itself as being necessarily misogynistic, note that the double standard is, but see Dan as attacking challenging promiscuity more than attacking the double standard.

    • Dalillama

      So, to me, either you are allowed to deride other people’s behaviour and ideas or you aren’t. If you aren’t, then this is not a special case of offense. If you are, then this is at least arguably not a problematic case.

      Allowed by whom? If you want to be a part of a given group, it behooves you to pay attention to what types of ethical values predominate there, and shape your own morality accordingly. Most of the abuse being heaped on Rush is because he offended the moral values of a large chunk of the population, who are heaping derision on him for it. You act as though the only significance is the act of derision, rather than the motivation behind it. You are free to deride others based on whatever qualities you choose, but you may be called on to justify your belief that the quality in question is one deserving of derision. If you fail to convince observers that your derision was justified, you can expect to some in for some derision of your own.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Dalillama,

      I totally agree with the idea of live by the sword, die by the sword. So if he is derisive against others he has no call, really, to complain when they return the favour. But the undercurrent that concerns me that even carries on in your post is the idea that it might be okay to be derisive of an idea that most people (or you) don’t agree with but not okay to be derisive of an idea that most people (or you) agree with. That’s unacceptable to me. Either you can be derisive, as I said, or you can’t. Whether most people agree with you doesn’t matter, although unfortunately most people seem to think it does.

    • Dalillama

      What are you actually trying to say? You agree with my point regarding determining appropriate targets for derision (In which I missed an important point that smndra mentions below:”I would argue that we have a right to be judgmental towards behaviors that cause malicious harm or harm through some sort of excessive negligence “) and then you turn around and act as though you don’t understand what is being used to distinguish appropriate derision from inappropriate derision. It’s been explained to you several times now, and I’m beginning to think that you’re being deliberately obtuse. The other option is that you subscribe to some kind of moral absolutist/essentialist philosophy, which I suppose is just a higher order form of deliberate obtuseness.

    • ischemgeek

      Let me ask you this then, VS: Would you use gender-based epithets to make as derisive comments about the promiscuity of a man? If not (and I strongly doubt it), you show a double-standard for men and women, with the prejudice that a promiscuous woman is a bad woman. Ergo, the race one is actually quite apt, considering that race and gender are both things one has no control over.

      Further, why, if it’s the behavior you’re so concerned with, are you in need of a name to call the person? Just call the person promiscuous and have done with it.

      Finally:

      The problem is that I was actually quite careful to avoid prejudice and bigotry.

      Says the guy who goes on to say that he leans to thinking that homosexuality is immoral. Why do you think that? What makes it immoral? On that note, what makes promiscuity immoral? It’s consenting adults engaging in consenting, fun activity that harms nobody.

      You’re starting from the assumption that these things are immoral and worthy of being the basis for insults. Since you haven’t backed up this point of view (and, being the one hurling the insults, you’re making the claim that it is in fact immoral and therefore the burden of proof is on you), I have to assume it boils down to what I accused you of in my first comment: Prejudice.

      So, again, if I just considered promiscuity worthy of derision, could I express that or not?

      You could, but don’t expect to use a gender-based insult and not be called on it, and don’t expect not to be called on your base assumption that promiscuity is worthy of derision. That’s not how the skeptic community should work.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Dalillama,

      What I’m trying to say is that it seems to be that the original contention was an idea that the distinction between okay to deride and not okay to deride was whether the derision is on the side that you agree with or not. If it is, then okay, and if it isn’t, then not. I don’t like that, and that’s what I took from what Dan said. In both posts, actually. Now, there may be other reasons to dislike the specific word “slut”, and I’ve agreed with those … but as I keep saying over and over and over those aren’t the reasons I see Dan giving, which is what prompted the comment in the first place.

      So, if you agree with me that it isn’t about whether you agree with them or not, then there isn’t much for us to argue over.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      ischemgeek,

      Let me ask you this then, VS: Would you use gender-based epithets to make as derisive comments about the promiscuity of a man? If not (and I strongly doubt it), you show a double-standard for men and women, with the prejudice that a promiscuous woman is a bad woman. Ergo, the race one is actually quite apt, considering that race and gender are both things one has no control over.

      I actually stated repeatedly in many places that I would equally condemn male and female promiscuity whenever I’d do it. I wouldn’t persoanlly use epithets to make derisive comments at all, because I think that’s unacceptable in any rational discourse. But I’ve had enough people argue that it isn’t always out of place to argue about that anymore, but am also quite sick of people getting upset when their opponents are derisive towards them while applauding people who are derisive towards those same opponents. And when that seems to cross over into saying that some ideas just shouldn’t be said at all, that annoys me even more.

      You’re starting from the assumption that these things are immoral and worthy of being the basis for insults. Since you haven’t backed up this point of view (and, being the one hurling the insults, you’re making the claim that it is in fact immoral and therefore the burden of proof is on you), I have to assume it boils down to what I accused you of in my first comment: Prejudice.

      No. I’m starting from the FACT that some people think those things are immoral and worthy of being the basis of insults and pointing out that Dan’s whole premise is that it is wrong of them to insult them because their ideas are, in Dan’s mind, immoral as well. And at that point, I think I can credibly ask “What’s the difference? You think your opponents are wrong and you’re right, and your opponents think you’re wrong and they’re right. If thinking yourself right would justify derision, then both sides think themselves right and are equally justified to be derisive. And if you don’t agree with that, then either I’m missing something or you’re being a hypocrite.”

      You could, but don’t expect to use a gender-based insult and not be called on it, and don’t expect not to be called on your base assumption that promiscuity is worthy of derision. That’s not how the skeptic community should work.

      I’m not a skeptic.

      Anyway, this is beside the point, because I was talking about the expression of the idea, and not the word, because Dan’s argument was based on the idea, not the word. If Dan would only say that he was referring to the “double standard” idea, then we’d agree. But in his post, he took on the idea I was talking about, not the double standard, and so he’d need to backpedal a lot to make that stick.

    • Dalillama

      So, deliberately obtuse, then. Got it, thanks.

    • Adam Hayes

      If you believe you must insult people, rather than claim that some behavior is wrong, then I’ll take the premise for a minute.

      In a patriarchal, oppressive society like ours, insulting the oppressed (women) is far more harmful than insulting the oppressors (men). You may not understand this, but you should consider it. Some things are matters of “opinion,” (like pineapple on pizza being disgusting); other things are matters of fact that people in power try to spin as merely an opinion (like cooking with beer being completely unethical).

      I think I’ve written this same thing on a number of blogs now, without the cooking analogy that I just realized would make the point perfectly, so I should either stop or add the text as a “hot-key” in my browser.

  • smrnda

    The idea that the language isn’t as important as the policy reminds me of something that Orwell wrote. He said during WWII a man (who was either British of French) said that he felt bad about civilians, women and children being bombed in Germany but that “the Hun must be stopped.” Orwell’s remark was that you can do more damage than a bomb by calling people “Huns.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1159674804 robertbaden

    @ Verbose Stoic:

    Stud?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      No, I wouldn’t call myself that at all, actually …

      Oh, that’s probably not what you meant [grin].

      Let me read a lot into that, and point out that there is indeed an inconsistency there, where a man who sleeps around isn’t really chastised for it and a woman is (which could be balanced by the fact that men are expected to do so and treated accordingly). I am all in favour of having a term that can be used just as derisively for men in that situation, or even a general term that applies to both genders. Right now, the only term that comes close for men is gigolo or something like that.

      But right now, we don’t have that gender-neutral term, and Limbaugh was talking to a woman and used the gendered term. So I don’t think we can call him out for the language he used; it’s appropriate in context for the idea he was trying to express and the tone he was aiming for. As I said, you’d have to call out the idea or the tone, and neither of those work that well. However, if he was consistently only aiming it at women and not men and was demonstrating that hypocrisy, you could call him out for that. But that isn’t what I took from this post.

    • http://eulercycle.wordpress.com nick euler

      @Verbose Stoic’s comment here.

      You might want to consider reading some feminist philosophy or theory before getting involved in these conversations — or if you have, you might consider that the points people are making are sometimes in that context, and your rebuttal needs to take that into account.

      It really doesn’t matter if Limbaugh uses “slut” a lot or not at all, or whether he would use an equally derogatory word towards men. The point is that misogynist language like what he used has a cultural context, and a semantic field that reinforces that context. Perhaps it isn’t fair, but you can’t call a woman a slut without invoking centuries of accumulated meaning and metaphor, and a lot of those are both terrible arguments and related to objectively destructive societal models. (Look no further than half the myths about rape.)

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      nick euler,

      I actually do know a fair bit of feminist theory, BTW, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with all of it.

      Anyway, I think in the other post we’re narrowing it down. I concede that there are issues with the word “slut”, and if it was THOSE ideas that Dan was challenging then we probably aren’t disagreeing and I just misunderstood him. But then I would have preferred that he had read my very detailed outlining of the specific idea that I thought was being expressed and simply pointed out that that wasn’t the idea he was going after before turning it into an entire new post [grin].

  • seditiosus

    Great post. Yes, I think behaviours are more tangibly and immediately harmful than words; limiting people’s access to necessary medical care is more harmful than calling them sluts. But just because an insult isn’t tangibly or immediately harmful doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. Language does matter, because language transmits culture. Culture can’t effectively be changed without addressing the ways people think and the ways they police cultural norms, and that means language. By using abusive, insulting language Limbaugh (and other people like him) is attempting to police cultural norms. Challenging the language he uses is all part of the process of challenging the legitimacy of the culture he’s promoting.

  • http://www.reason-being.com reasonbeing

    I agree with you completely. I wrote a piece on sexism last Thursday and was surprised to see how many responses I got through email, more or less saying that statement’s like Limbaugh’s (this is before he said it mind you) are more or less harmless to compared to “real sexism” such as getting passed over for a promotion.

    I find the above view to be abhorrent. Sexism is sexism. When someone like Limbaugh says something like he did, the effect is quite large. It is that kind of degradation that leads to the “real sexism” that some of my readers were worried about.

    It becomes a slippery slope when degradation of any kind is allowed. You sum it up very well when you write:
    “Language matters. Ideas are contained in language. Ideas create institutions and institutions create ideas and language. They’re a knot. You can’t untie any two parts without untying all three.”

  • Stacy

    OK, so I jumped in before I read the rest of the comments.

    So sue me. (Sorry.)

  • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

    Damn, didn’t see this until I saw it linked from the follow-up about Verbose Stoic.

    Nice post, and comments.

    Here’s why I made the comment, though: I see more complaints about his language than his actual stance. I don’t see people saying, “Run Rush off the air because he thinks women shouldn’t have access to affordable birth control.” I see, “We need to tell that big, fat, disgusting pig who chomps on cigars like they were big black dicks that he can’t use offensive terms like ‘slut.’” Hypocrisy much?

    Just an observation: no one bats an eye if I suggest Ann Coulter is a bitch, but if Rush Limbaugh said it about someone he disagrees with, he’s a monster. It seems very strange to me… I mean, I understand why we can all agree Ann Coulter is a bitch (because she is), but why does Rush Limbaugh not have the same leeway as a liberal like myself, or someone who is actually funny, like Bill Maher?

    I see a lot of “culture” talk in these instances, about how the use of certain words creates a “culture of XYZ,” and we insert something scary in (I’m seen “culture of rape,” “culture of misogyny,” “culture of patriarchy,” etc.). I also see a lot of talk about how “words matter.” Fair enough, but they only seem to matter when a conservative uses them (or if a liberal we don’t like uses them and we want to nitpick).

    I think all of the obsession over language is one-sided, and that it’s usually liberals trying to shame conservatives (with some liberal-on-liberal complaints and the occasional attempt by a Republican to play the shame game). I have bad news… you can’t shame the shameless, so it might be better to take another approach.

    But it is nice to see people finally going after Rush. I guess I shouldn’t be all uppity about why, but I find it disingenuous, so I felt compelled to point it out.

    • J. J. Ramsey

      Bret: “no one bats an eye if I suggest Ann Coulter is a bitch”

      That’s not necessarily true. I know I’ve see people called out for implying that she’s transsexual, as if that were a bad thing.

    • Enkidum

      If you call Ann Coulter a bitch you’re liable to get thrown off Pharyngula. This is not a all-language-is-ok kind of blog network.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Bret, his “stance” is unmitigated bullshit that does not even come in the ballpark of accurately representing the facts of the case. AND it’s being refuted all over. But his stance is being attacked when put by other people all over the place for a month. Have you read my attacks (for example) on the Catholic Church for a month??

      What is distinctly awful here is a 61 year old man with millions of listeners saying he wants the women law students of Georgetown to video tape themselves having sex and broadcast it to voters as a condition of their getting birth control covered by their employers. Now, if you don’t think there is room in the discourse to take a time out from the normal condemnations of bad threats to contraception and get this fucking lech off the radio, well, I don’t know what more to say really.

      There’s plenty of room to end Rush Limbaugh’s career over what is not thinly defensible “policy” and what is disgusting degradation of women across the nation.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Dan,

      What is distinctly awful here is a 61 year old man with millions of listeners saying he wants the women law students of Georgetown to video tape themselves having sex and broadcast it to voters as a condition of their getting birth control covered by their employers.

      Putting aside the fact that that was almost certainly intentionally over-the-top rhetoric, what does that have to do with his use of the word “slut” or with the idea that promiscuity might be worthy of derision? You seem to be shifting arguments to ones that the people you are calling out will not disagree with, but which aren’t the arguments you started with.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Nooo, Bret was asking whether Limbaugh’s comments merit our focus when there were more important fish to fry. I was saying regardless of all the other things wrong today in the world, this is so awful that even if it were independent of all policy issues of the day it would be intrinsically worth denouncing as part of our public discourse. It is important we not let such things go uncondemned. Period. Regardless of whether it advances any policy debate. The man belongs off the radio, period. That’s my reply to Bret. It’s related to his challenge.

      As for your concerns, I’ve answered them and the rest of the commenters have ably filled in the gaps I left which you subsequently raised. Plus I’ve responded a couple times to correct a couple mischaracterizations of my position you’ve made. So, for the time being at least, there’s no need to address your concerns again in every other comment I respond to here.

      And I don’t care if it was “almost certainly intentionally over-the-top rhetoric”. That’s like saying, well, “the bully didn’t really mean that the other kid should literally go hang himself so why are we getting so worked up about it?” etc., etc. Hyperbolic language can be abusive. You noticed that I have not wished any harm or any acts of degrading humiliation on Mr. Limbaugh or you or anyone else I disagree with? You know, not even “jokingly” and “obviously being absurd”? There’s reasons for that. It’s called respect for others’ dignity and civil discourse. A self-proclaimed Kantian should understand a thing or two about that.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Dan,

      Nooo, Bret here was talking about the hypocrisy of calling Rush out for using derogatory terms like “slut” and not others. He never said anything about the comment about the video taping. In your post, you didn’t mention that part either, just a rant about all the wrongs Rush did (re-reading it, I may have jumped too quickly to comments about promiscuity). And now, when Bret asks what’s wrong with Rush calling her a slut, you leap to “That whole video thing is just totally out of line and disgusting!”. Bret probably agrees. I agree, too, (like a good not-quite-Kantian), but find that pretty standard in today’s discourse (and do find it unfortunate). From all sides. So you seem to be, as I said, shifting the argument. Instead of focusing on the “slut” term that he used or what you said in your reply to Bret, you leap to another part of it and say “But this is totally wrong!” Yeah, it may be … but it isn’t what the other person was talking about either.

      And your limited responses to me do the same thing, by shifting it from the point I made about the idea of promiscuity being worthy of derision to a claim that you weren’t derisive, which isn’t the point, is debatable, and is something that I already addressed by pointing out that if you were claiming that insults or derision was always wrong you’d have made that general statement instead of what you did say.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I have not been able to keep up with every subsequent qualification so primarily I’ve just addressed the initial issues in your and Bret’s posts and then in the very specific comments I’m addressing. I’ve had just a few spare minutes the last two days to manage all this. When there is time I will read it all over carefully. But between writing my first post and this morning, I’ve traveled quite a bit and taught quite a bit. I’m just swamped. I’ll see if I’m missing something later.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Dan,

      And one more thing: how did you miss Bret’s comment that Limbaugh should be off the radio, but not for using the word “slut”?

    • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

      And one more thing: how did you miss Bret’s comment that Limbaugh should be off the radio, but not for using the word “slut”?

      Isn’t it obvious? If you actually address the message of what I said, you can’t act morally indignant about it. The whole point here is to shame people, not address what people say or mean. That would require empathy.

  • magistramarla

    “Language matters. Ideas are contained in language. Ideas create institutions and institutions create ideas and language. They’re a knot. You can’t untie any two parts without untying all three.”

    This is incredibly insightful. If I were still teaching high school, I would post it in my classroom. This is an idea that I was constantly trying to get across to my students when I was teaching a foreign language.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thank you.

  • smrnda

    Might be a little late for the above discussion but seriously verbose stoic, can you give me an actual rational reason why I should judge a woman for being sexually active? I don’t care at all about people having sex as long as they aren’t cheating on someone (where the real issue is dishonesty) or being predatory.

    Also, do you believe that any sexually active woman is a ‘slut’ or is there some actual number you use to make that distinction, and what is your justification for picking that number? At what point is someone “too obsessed with sex” as you put it.

    I would argue that we have a right to be judgmental towards behaviors that cause malicious harm or harm through some sort of excessive negligence – I have a right to complain about people talking on cell phones while driving since it is a pretty dangerous activity. I have a right to protest actions of companies which are harmful to workers and socially irresponsible, like Foxconn in China, but people having sex, using birth control or other protection? They’re doing all they can to be safe and harmless, so I should keep my mouth shut. Any belief in the innate “harm” of such behaviors is really all in a person’s head.

    Regardless of how unappealing you find the activity, I would argue that an opinion about a person’s sex life is none of your business and none of mine. If objecting to someone’s “promiscuity” was valid, then I would argue that it would be equally valid for someone to “object” to inter-racial marriages or relationships as well, and I would call even having an opinion on what other people do in this capacity to be out of line.

    So Verbose Stoic, I think I’ve provided a basic principle that covers what behaviors one is entitled to have an opinion on and what behaviors one should keep quiet about.

    Basically, I see no place for any judgment on any consensual sexual activity between anyone. Unless you can demonstrate that the behavior is really harmful to you in some way, or that it could potentially harm you or someone else, I’d say one isn’t entitled to judge.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      I’ll start at the end here:

      Basically, I see no place for any judgment on any consensual sexual activity between anyone. Unless you can demonstrate that the behavior is really harmful to you in some way, or that it could potentially harm you or someone else, I’d say one isn’t entitled to judge.

      And I disagree; I don’t think that judgements or morality/immmorality depend on harm. And since I’m Stoic/Kantian sympathetic, there’s a long tradition of argumentation that agrees with me (and a long tradition of argumentation that disagrees with me as well). Thus, you can say that without demonstrating harm I shouldn’t judge, but I can reply that that’s false and that I quite legitimately can. At this point, we need to hash this out. But my comment was aimed at the fact that Dan seemed to be just flat-out saying that such things cannot be said, and even your comment seems to imply that I just shouldn’t say that as that would be imposing my values on others, and yet I fail to see how what you say isn’t doing the exact same thing.

      They’re doing all they can to be safe and harmless, so I should keep my mouth shut. Any belief in the innate “harm” of such behaviors is really all in a person’s head.

      And that’s your value system. It’s not mine. Now, I don’t want to get sidetracked into debates over when promiscuity is or isn’t a problem, but note that for me:

      1) Promiscuity would be a problem if it’s chosen over a virtue.
      2) Whether something is a virtue or not is not determined by what harm it causes.

      At which point, you’d be arguing that it’s all in my head, and I’d kinda agree but argue that that’s okay (and, in fact, would argue that what really determines moral or immoral is having the right things in your head, ie the right attitudes.. Now, we can argue over that and I have never, ever, run away from criticism or argument. But my concern here is the attitude that I seemed to be seeing that indicated that even expressing the idea was just plain wrong and out of line, but expressing it is the first step to discussing it. There’s a difference between being wrong and being out of line, in my opinion.

    • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

      There’s your problem. How can a non-theist justify being a duty ethicist? Where does this duty come from if it isn’t rules of thumb to get good outcomes?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Well, the first, somewhat facetious answer is to say “Exactly how Kant and the Stoics did it, since they did not base their moral philosophy on theism”.

      In more detail, you are advocating for a very specific idea of what makes something moral and asking how we could possibly have anything else. But Virtue Theory is fairly popular academically right now and is based on you being a right and exemplar human being by holding all the traits that actually have value, and that isn’t necessarily based on the traits that tend to give good outcomes. The Stoics and Aristoleans are Virtue Theorists. The Stoics based theirs on holding that rationality defines the true Good, and so we had to act according to reason, and that’s what defined the Virtues for them, although they were influenced by their culture. For me, I base it on what it means to be moral as a concept; what does anything worthy of the name “morality” have to have? I haven’t read Kant in a while, but do believe that he argued about the same way, claiming that our duty was just intrinsic to us as human/moral beings. Both rejected the idea that pleasure had any intrinsic value or led in and of itself to the good, so much so that Kant tried to call out the Stoics on that because they used the term “eudaimonia” which roughly means “happiness”.

      Now, also consider that your view has its problems itself, especially in defining what a good outcome is. Also, depending on how strongly you judge by consequences, you might end up leaving intentions out, which causes major issues — if someone intends to do good and due to circumstances beyond their control it turns out bad, does that mean that they did bad — while the Stoics and Kant put intentions front and centre. The Stoics, in fact, deny that you have control over outcomes and you can’t morally be concerned with them; only your internal state and intentions matter.

      There’s a lot more here, and a lot of philosophical literature on both sides. Suffice it to say, then, that my position has a lot of support and a lot of criticism, as does yours. There’s no obvious problem or obvious solution here, and all of this comes about with ever mentioning God.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    ischemgeek,

    Says the guy who goes on to say that he leans to thinking that homosexuality is immoral. Why do you think that? What makes it immoral? On that note, what makes promiscuity immoral? It’s consenting adults engaging in consenting, fun activity that harms nobody.

    Oops. My first reaction on reading this was “No I didn’t! I said the opposite!”, but then looked back and noted that I tied “moral or not” to a simple statement of “leaning not” at the end. No, it’s the other way around. But to prove that this isn’t just me tossing a Hail Mary, let me detail why:

    I’m Stoic-leaning. As a Stoic, it seems to me that heterosexual sex would be considered an indifferent, which means that it isn’t moral but isn’t immoral either unless you choose it over a Virtue. But if heterosexual sex is an indifferent, why would homosexual sex be a Vice (the things that are immoral)? I can’t think of any Stoically justified reason to considering it to be a Vice, and so am leaning that it’s just an indifferent and so not immoral in and of itself.

    I’ll try to get back to the rest of your comment later.

    • John Morales

      I’m Stoic-leaning. As a Stoic [blah]

      And you have your cake and eat it, too!

      (Straighten up!)

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      I call myself Stoic-leaning because I am not convinced that it is the right moral code yet; it has some issues, such as defining what the virtues are. However, in moral discussions I do try to interpret and argue broadly Stoic, thus it’s a perfectly reasonable statement.

      And I consider it a (ahem) virtue to be only leaning at this point [grin].

  • Roxane

    Why does “merely criticizing someone’s behavior” have to involve name-calling? When your kids do something wrong, do you call them filthy names? When a colleague screws up, what kind of abuse do you heap on him? What do you call your wife or girlfriend when something they do doesn’t meet with your approval?

    And if you wouldn’t say it in person, you shouldn’t say it online–or on the airwaves.


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