The problem with Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” comments

Over at the Center for Inquiry’s blog, Ben Radford decided to use the Rush Limbaugh “slut” incident to tell skeptics not to be dicks. There are so many things wrong with this article, but I’m going to start by saying what I think was wrong with Limbaugh’s comments, so I can then explain where Radford’s analysis goes wrong. Here’s the HuffPo summary of the incident:

Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown Law School, was supposed to be the Democratic witness at a Congressional hearing about the Obama administration’s contraception policy. However, Darrell Issa, the committee chair at the hearing, prevented her from speaking, while only allowing a series of men to testify about the policy. Fluke eventually spoke to a Democratic hearing, and talked about the need for birth control for both reproductive and broader medical reasons. She mentioned in particular a friend of hers who needed contraception to prevent the growth of cysts.

To Limbaugh, though, Fluke was just promoting casual sex.

“Can you imagine if you were her parents how proud…you would be?” he said. “Your daughter … testifies she’s having so much sex she can’t afford her own birth control pills and she wants President Obama to provide them, or the Pope.”

He continued:

“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

What’s wrong with this? Let me count the ways:

  1. Missing the point that birth control pills aren’t just used to prevent pregnancy. They can, for example, be used to treat polycystic ovary syndrome.
  2. The bizarre apparent belief that birth control pills are like condoms in that you take one for every time you have sex.
  3. The non-sequitur, indeed downright idiotic, reasoning to justify calling Fluke a slut.
  4. The implied sex-negativity and sexual double standard in the comment.
  5. The fact that even ignoring 1-4 there’s an undercurrent of sexism–you can bet Limbaugh would never accuse a man of being a prostitute for saying insurance companies should cover Viagra.

Radford, however, does not see any such problems in Limbaugh’s remarks. He says, “The issue is less what Limbaugh said than how he said it-his approach, tone, and choice of words.” No, sorry, 1-3 are very much a matter of what Limbaugh said, and 4-5 are a matter of what he implied. Then Radford says:

Limbaugh’s words were not merely insults (though one could argue that in an enlightened world slut and prostitute should not be insults but instead a sexually liberated woman’s prerogative). As Fluke said in an interview on The View, “I tried to see this for what it is, and I believe that what it is, is an attempt to silence me, to silence the millions of women and the men who support them who have been speaking out about this issue.” This is indeed the intended effect of insults: to put others down, to dismiss and silence them.

Now I don’t know what Limbaugh intended, but if his comments were intended to silence Fluke, they were a comically inept effort. They had the opposite effect. Threatening someone with jail time or losing their job if they speak their mind can be an effective way to silence someone, calling them bad names not so much.

I point this out only because Radford is wrong to think that insults are, in general, intended to silence people. And because that’s a really important mistake not to make. For example, I have no desire to silence Rush Limbaugh, but I want y’all out there to know he’s a moron.  Radford goes on:

It’s often the case that outrage and insults substitute for truth and accuracy; it’s easier to call someone stupid or a slut than it is to engage them respectfully. It’s easier to have knee-jerk, facepalming reactions of manufactured apoplectic outrage than it is to thoughtfully address another’s opinion or evidence.

Not only is it easier, it’s sometimes the right thing to do! Rush Limbaugh is stupid and doesn’t deserve to be engaged respectfully. Remarks as vile as his should make decent people facepalm, and and they don’t have enough substance to be “thoughtfully addressed.” Moving on:

CSICOP co-founder Ray Hyman’s guide “Proper Criticism” (which has been reprinted several times in Skeptical Inquirer magazine and stands as the publication’s official guide to proper skeptical discourse) wrote, “We should…convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner. We should avoid using loaded and prejudicial words in our criticisms.”

Fair and objective? Yes, but sometimes a fair and objective look will lead to the conclusion that something is idiotic and vile. Non-emotional? Hell no, that’s the Straw Vulcan fallacy talking. Avoid using loaded words? It sounds nice in theory, but sometimes the only alternative is euphemism. We don’t gain anything by refusing to use the word “fundamentalist” to describe Christians who are willing to dismiss science when it contradicts the Bible and who think all the homosexuals and unbelievers are going to burn in Hell forever.

It seems clear to most skeptics that ridicule, insults, and ad hominem attacks are wrong and counter-productive. Given the widespread condemnation of Limbaugh’s words (not only among Democrats and feminists but among the general public), you would think that there would be a vast and deep gulf between the sort of vile tone and language Limbaugh represents and skeptics.

That is, unfortunately, not the case, as Phil, myself, and many others have pointed out. It is alarming and concerning when skeptics-women and men who presumably value freedom of speech, free inquiry, and respectful discourse-use the same tactics and fallacies that Rush Limbaugh routinely employs.

For the most part, I do see a pretty clear gulf between Limbaugh and most skeptics: see 1-5 above. If skeptics were commonly using the same fallacies that Limbaugh employs, that would be worrisome, but Radford doesn’t give any examples of this. For him to just declare there’s a problem is obnoxious for the same reasons Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” speech was obnoxious.

Okay, enough on the “be nice” crowd for today.


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