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.

  • Cuttlefish

    Pssst–yer last link is busticated.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Now I don’t know what Limbaugh intended…

    I think it’s pretty obvious, and has never changed. He doesn’t care about Fluke, or sex, or contraception or the costs of insurance. He cares about saying enough to keep his listeners happy, nodding their head in agreement, and coming back to listen in the future, so that he can point to his market share and charge his advertisers appropriately.

    Of course, my cynicism is an acquired taste. ;)

  • jamessweet

    Even if we accept that the insults were intended to marginalize, there’s also the huge gulf between 1) a public personality with a nationally syndicated radio show attempting to marginalize a college student who was unheard of prior to a few days ago, vs. 2) some semi-popular bloggers attempting to marginalize an institution which basically ruled the world for thousands of years and which continues to enjoy unfettered influence over the political process and over public discourse.

    Atheists are not capable of squelching the voice of the religious, at least not in the United States. To suggest that we are doing so is just stupid.

  • Beth

    Radford is wrong to think that insults are, in general, intended to silence people.

    I generally try to avoid attributing motives to other people’s behaviors, but it is definitely an common effect of insults. That it doesn’t always work – Rush’s tirade against Ms. Fluke resulted in more pushback than he was anticipating – does not imply anything about the motivation for using abusive language and verbally attacking those who express what you consider to be objectionable opinions.

    The perception among many people is that such insults are hurled in an attempt to keep women in their place and unwilling to voice their opinions in the public sphere (see #mencallmethings). If they are wrong about the motivation of those who hurl insults, it’s because they are conflating a commmon effect of such language with the motivation to achieve that effect.

    After all, it’s reasonable to consider silencing as the motivation when a frequent response to such insults is for the insulted party to withdraw from the conversation and for onlookers to feel less comfortable voicing similar opinions lest they too be subjected to the insults.

    Personally, I have decided that I do not need to interact with people who insult me personally as a response to stating an opinion they don’t agree with. I frequently choose to exit the conversation at that point. If I observe such treatment of others, I will often decline to join the conversation for that reason. I don’t think that’s a terribly uncommon reaction.

    I will grant that such a response may not qualify as ‘silencing’ since the choice of when or where to express my opinion remains my own. I would prefer a more precise word to express that effect, but ‘silencing’ seems to be the one currently being used to express that idea.

    I don’t wish to censor or ‘silence’ Rush or anyone else. Insisting on no insults or abusive language would have that effect, so I find it a difficult issue to articulate carefully. Your right to be insulting supercedes my desire not to be insulted because I can simply not listen to or converse with those who use language abusively.

    When you support the use of insults (BTW, when did fundamentalists because an insult?) as an acceptable or reasonable response to those you disagree with vehemently, it seems to me that you advocating the use of abusive language as a way to silencing those you disagree with.

    As far was whether skeptics are better than Rush and his followers: my basic assumption is that skeptics are about the same as the rest of society. I found Dawkin’s ‘Dear Muslima’ letter as offensive as Rush’s tirade. The response that followed from both sides used insults as degrading and worse than Rush did to describe those who disagreed. The use of fallacies like false equivalencies were common. So I don’t agree with you that there exists a clear gulf between Rush and skeptics, or for that matter, any other group in our society.

    I don’t see much difference between calling Sandra Fluke a slut and calling fundamentalist christians creotards. Name calling isn’t appropriate in either case – at least not if you want to have a conversation about public policy rather than silence the other side.

    On the other hand, if you want to create an atmosphere for public discourse that makes the cost of expressing certain unpopular opinions high enough that fewer and fewer people are willing to do so, then verbal abuse (i.e. namecalling, insults, mockery, ridicule, and general denigration) of people with opposing views can be quite effective.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      I have a very hard time understanding being afraid of insults, so maybe I’m failing to quite grasp their full effect. And things like “creotard” strike me as childish.

      But there’s an important distinction to make between intimidating someone into silence and having them leave the conversation because they decide you’re not worth talking to. I think it is true that by insulting someone to a large extent you signal that you don’t think they’re worth dialoging with, and once you’ve signaled that, they’re apt to conclude the same about you.

      But again, some people aren’t worth talking to! Me calling William Lane Craig a fraud isn’t going to endear him to me or make him want to answer any questions I may have for him, but I don’t care because I wouldn’t expect an honest answer to questions anyway! And I’m hardly silencing him, he’s going to continue to be able to do his thing in front of audiences that haven’t seen through his shtick.

      • Beth

        I think you are having a hard time understanding people being ‘afraid of insults’ because you are projecting the wrong emotion onto those who desire to avoid them.

        Have you read any of the discussions on the various #mencallmethings posts? Fear can come into play when direct threats are made, but that emotional reaction isn’t the case for insults generally.

        I’m in agreement with you regarding the rest of what you say about intimidation and silencing and choosing to walk away from conversations.

        I think it is true that by insulting someone to a large extent you signal that you don’t think they’re worth dialoging with, and once you’ve signaled that, they’re apt to conclude the same about you.

        When those who hold differing opinions are considered not worth dialoging with and have walked away from the converation, what is left is an echo chamber populated by the choir.

        Such spaces can be valuable, but they aren’t what I’m looking for when I participate in internet conversations. Is that what you want?

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

          So to clarify, my original point was mainly about how we talk about individuals. I generally don’t go for blanket insults against entire groups (“creotard”), though it gets tricky when you’re trying to deal with ignorant, foolish, or even vile ideas that have become common talking points.

          Hmmm, post idea…

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Also, on the “fundamentalist” thing:

      A lot of people seem to regard “fundamentalist” as an insult. See talk of “fundamentalist atheists” (which makes no sense whatsoever if you take it literally) and all the fundamentalists who insist on being called no fundamentalists but “evangelicals.”

      I don’t think it is an insult, exactly, but it’s certainly a loaded word, full of negative connotations. Now I think the negative connotations are there because of the beliefs that the word “fundamentalist” originally referred to, and that should be recognized more often, but it’s still a loaded term.

  • Tony

    Beth @4:

    I don’t see much difference between calling Sandra Fluke a slut and calling fundamentalist christians creotards.

    -To me, there’s a substantial difference. Yes, both are insulting, but calling Sandra Fluke a slut reeks of misogyny, so the insult is cranked up to 11. If ‘slut’ was used to describe men AND women, it might be a different story. I’ve found myself several times reminding male friends that being called a slut is A: a judgment call made by others to describe a woman’s sexual actions in an undesirable light
    B: a judgment call that should also be made of men. After all, men are promiscuous too.

    • ash

      Creotard is a pretty childish insult, but it’s accurate in what it describes…Someone who stupidly believes in the creation myth. Nothing in Sandra Fluke’s address indicated anything about her sexual life.

      • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

        Well, I don’t think it’s mostly stupidity, I think it’s mostly ignorance. Some people will be insulted at being called ignorant, but the distinction is still important.

  • BKsea

    I’m late to the party here, but I am really bothered by the argument that “birth control pills aren’t just used to prevent pregnancy.”

    I think this simply plays into the hands of those who want to equate birth control pills with icky stuff. It is a tacit admission that they are correct.

    However, we should support access to birth control pills even if they could ONLY be used to prevent pregnancy. We have a vested interest as a society to prevent unwanted pregnancy from a perspective of women’s health, child welfare, and economics. END OF STORY!

    If this enables a woman to walk down the street and do the nasty with every third guy she meets, so be it. It beats her doing that and getting pregnant to boot.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      I agree that it would be good to fund birth control even if it were only used to prevent pregnancy. But in addition to that, when insurance companies don’t cover birth control, they’re failing to cover something many women need for reasons that have nothing to do with sex.

      • J. Goard

        I agree with both of you, but on a rhetorical level, Chris, I don’t think it’s a good idea to make your first argument about something that’s relatively rare, when everybody on both sides knows that the issue is sexuality. It hurts the case, and it sells out related issues that may not have separate medical conditions riding along as a bonus argument.

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