Published on March 13th, 2012 | by Daulton Dickey0
Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, and the ‘Logic’ of Public Discourse
When he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute, Rush Limbaugh detonated a political H-bomb. As effects of the bomb tore through the public sphere, the fallout drifted and settled on national discourse, encouraging the suppression of free speech. In fact, men and women of all political ideologies embrace this new assault on freedom of speech. While what Limbaugh said is contemptible, it should not be used as a rallying cry to silence him—or anyone else: altering the tone of discourse does nothing to address the roots of hatred and bigotry, ignorance and intolerance. It’s the dialectical equivalent to slapping a bandage over melanoma. And in a free society, it lays the foundations for movements to strip that society of the freedoms it is trying to uphold.
When Sandra Fluke testified before a Committee assessing the proposed requirement of institutions—including religious entities—to provide contraceptives in their health care plans, radio pundit Rush Limbaugh responded with an ad hominem attack.
“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic],” Limbaugh said, “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.”
Limbaugh’s comments immediately drew the ire of progressives. Liberal media watchdog Media Matters called Limbaugh’s comments “rancid misogyny.” Gloria Allred sent a letter to a Florida state attorney’s office encouraging it to prosecute Limbaugh for his comments, and a campaign to pressure Limbaugh’s advertisers to pull their ads from his show went viral. As of this writing, at least 98 advertisers have pulled spots from Limbaugh’s show, relegating his ad space to dead air or free public service announcements.
Not to be outdone, conservatives adopted the progressive’s tactics and condemned Bill Maher, who recently donated one million dollars to a pro-Obama Super PAC. Comedian Louis C.K. also found himself in the cross-fire, backing away from hosting a Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner after pressure from the Right.
Those on the Left cheer whenever a corporation pulls ads from Limbaugh’s show while those on the Right condemn and cheer when they score victories, such as pressuring Louis C.K. to back out of his hosting engagement. This is democracy in action, we’re told. Bigots and Buffoons have no right to spew nonsense in the public sphere without criticism. Civics lessons usually follow: The First Amendment guarantees protection from the government, not from the people; although Freedom of Speech may enable people to say what they like, it doesn’t shield them from criticism, it doesn’t ensure them a megaphone to broadcast their nonsense.
But that reasoning misses the point. We can easily accuse Limbaugh, Maher, C.K., and a host of others of propagating nonsense, of capitalizing on bigotry and intolerance. We should condemn people for spreading nonsense, bigotry, and intolerance, but we shouldn’t bathe in the joy of suppressing a person’s right to say what’s on his or her mind—even if it violates ‘reasonable discourse,’ even if it is emotionally repulsive.
Freedom of Speech isn’t a topic relegated to the United States government. It is a cultural concern. It is a human concern. To punish one person, to restrict his or her right to say offensive things, is to establish cultural triggers that may one day be used against us, enabling our opponents to silence us through emotional language, not reasoned arguments. For examples of this, the Left need look no further than discourse concerning global warming or teaching evolution in public schools.
That one can make a reasoned argument against the nonsense Limbaugh, Maher, C.K., et cetera, perpetuates is not the point. The issue here is broader. The attack against Limbaugh and people like him is an attack on culture. It’s a concentrated effort meant to restrict the tenor of public discourse by appealing to the emotions of groups—in this case, to the emotions of political ideologues and partisans.
This tactic is itself vile and poisonous, and if we want to criticize Limbaugh or Maher, we should learn to adopt logical, reasonable modes of criticisms and argumentation—not to strengthen our cause or resolve, but to strengthen our culture, our society, our political institutions.
To call Limbaugh, Maher, C.K., misogynists is to engage in the type of discourse you’re condemning. “Slut” is a pejorative deployed to condemn; “misogynist” is a pejorative deployed to condemn. An argument in which “slut” or “misogynist” is employed transforms logic into rhetoric, and in lieu of discussing root causes, we’re left flinging catch-phrases, sound bites, and bumper-sticker slogans.
What is the root cause of the Limbaugh controversy? Is it a ‘War on Women,’ a concentrated effort by the Right to regain ground in a cultural battle progressives and conservatives have waged for centuries? Why did Limbaugh call Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute? Because she was testifying on behalf of mandating coverage of contraceptives by private institutions. Is this mandate protected by federal law or is it an abuse of executive privilege? By mandating religious organizations to provide contraceptive did the Administration violate the separation of church and state? Should institutions that condemn the concept of a separation of church and state appeal for its protection when rules are established in opposition to religious belief?
These—and other—issues are lost in this case because our attention, our ire, is focused on Rush Limbaugh and people like Bill Maher, Louis C.K., and Gloria Allred. Instead of forming valid or sound arguments to justify our positions, we’re now appealing entirely to the emotions of likeminded people, further relegating logic and reason to the dustbins of public discourse.
And, in this case, we’re urging those motivated by emotions to play a distinctly capitalist game. By targeting Limbaugh’s sponsors, those opposed to him are enforcing cultural economic sanctions, using money and the threat of lost revenue to silence people whose opinions or rhetoric are deemed vile or unworthy, bigoted or intolerant.
And many of those succeeding in routing Limbaugh’s battalion of advertisers publicly condemn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Many on the Left who are concentrating their attention on Limbaugh, who are employing capitalist tactics to silence him, may turn around and condemn the Koch Brothers for using money to influence politics or lament the influence of Super PACS for dictating discourse with the purpose of altering policy. Yet they don’t recognize the inconsistencies when they employ these same strategies and tactics to achieve their ends.
What Rush Limbaugh said was appalling, and I’m by no means a supporter or defender of him or the type of nonsense he spewed, but I am a defender of the freedom to speak one’s mind—even if it’s vile and repulsive—without fear of cultural or political censorship. If you want to attack Limbaugh, attack his arguments—show his statements to be false or his arguments to be invalid. If you want to silence your political opponent, mount a sound argument so impenetrable that he or she cannot challenge it without revealing ignorance or bias—or plain stupidity.
If your opponent is wrong, if your opponent is mounting arguments in which one or more premise is not true or in which conclusions do not follow from premises, counter their arguments. If your opponent employs hateful or bigoted language to attack the content of someone’s character—not the content of his or her arguments—then you should focus on the language only to parse out the implied conclusions or premises on which such hatred or bigotry is founded. (And note the distinctly militaristic use of words like ‘opponents’ and ‘enemies’; this is not rational or reasonable language.)
To prevent our cultural and political discourse from spiraling into unredeemable chaos, we should regain the high ground. We should reclaim logic and reason as the basis on which to mount all arguments and criticisms. Appealing to emotions does nothing to eradicate bigotry, ignorance, or intolerance—it only changes the language people use to spread nonsense.
In the past, efforts to eradicate words like “faggot” and “nigger” have largely succeeded, relegating those words to tools someone uses to commit cultural suicide. But you should analyze your reaction to words like “faggot” or “nigger.” Did you respond emotionally? Do you feel anger and disgust at me for daring to type these words? Now ask yourself this: Did the suppression of these words annihilate the concepts these words imply? Has the suppression of the n-word eradicated racism from the Western world? Has the suppression of the f-word eradicated anti-homosexual rhetoric? It’s marginalized those who explicitly endorse the concepts these words imply, and it’s marginalized those concepts—but it hasn’t eradicated bigotry and racism. It’s changed the language, the strategies and tactics used by those expressing hatred or intolerance. But it hasn’t eradicated the concepts.
Appealing to emotions can marginalize concepts, but to live in a truly free society, a society open to everyone, our goal should be to eradicate ignorant or intolerant concepts. Negative ideas—hatred, bigotry, intolerance, et cetera—can hover on the margins, but what does a culture thriving on emotionally charged discourse do when those margins are in a position to envelop the center?
You might argue that attacking language disarms our opponents, preventing them from spreading hateful concepts. You might argue that disarming them allows for future discussions grounded in reasonable discourse. But you can also argue—taking a cue from Carl von Clausewitz—that manipulating emotions is politics by other means. Following Clausewitz, we may disarm people to bend their will, to compel them to fulfill our will. If you take the Clausewitzian approach, you are training people to succumb to totalitarian desires.
An appeal to emotions and an appeal to herd instincts are fallacies. Logically sound arguments cannot follow from fallacious reasoning. If we hover in the land of logical fallacies, we tend to stay there. From women’s rights to religious freedom, to racism to financial inequality, from the role of government in the lives of citizens, we argue fallaciously; and in lieu of dissociating validity from fallacy, we alienate the former while embracing the latter.
The public row surrounding Limbaugh and people like him could be construed as evidence to support that previous sentence. If we grounded discussions in logic and reason, if through clear thinking, we resolve issues, we wouldn’t see the same discussions rear their heads month after year after decade. In the case of women’s rights, of reproductive rights, of the role of ignorance and intolerance in public discourse, we as a culture have long dismissed reason and logic in favor of powerful emotional appeals—and by doing so, we encourage this kind of discourse, inviting future conflict by the form of the means we employ to achieve our aims.
When we abolish logic and discourse, when we delight in inconsistencies, when we encourage cultural or free market totalitarianism to silence those whose opinions diverge from ours, we establish discourse not founded in logic and reason. And when truly sinister agents or entities capitalize on emotional discourse, when they explicitly reject logic and reason, what reason can we possibly express to keep those people on the margins? When a culture has shed reliance on logic, what logical argument can we mount to convince them of the superiority of logic to counter sinister agents from injecting poison into cultural or political spheres?
These are questions we’re currently facing. But instead of responding to them, without even acknowledging them, we’re running on adrenaline, so to speak. Fueled by anger, by emotions, we’re endorsing fascist tactics in the name of democracy and free enterprise. And to protect democracy through fascist means only helps to transform democracy into a new type of fascism.
If you analyze any totalitarian system, you’ll see that the people expressing vitriol in public discourse are tacitly endorsing or encouraging such behavior from the government. People can be rational. But at times, people can be irrational. If the majority of people wanted to turn America into a theocracy, for example, and corporations and the government went along with the will of the people, this would constitute totalitarianism. And if people wanted to turn America into a theocracy, they wouldn’t base their arguments on logic; they’d appeal to the emotions of the majority, who are Christians. In a society trained to respond to emotions, not to rational arguments, what do you think will win? Theocratic rule or reason and logic?