When This Is, That Is

Exploring the world of conditionality

Inappropriate Speech: It’s Not All about Rush Limbaugh

I grew up in a household where foul and derogatory language was a rarity. As I progressed through childhood, I noticed that my parents didn’t use many of the words I’d become accustomed to hearing at school. I wondered if they even knew them. 

Eventually I came to work in construction and realized how naïve I’d been. It must have been around then that it occurred to me: “Of course my parents know those words. How could they not?” 

Although I do remember, long ago, being threatened with a bar of soap on the tongue, I learned (indirectly) that it wasn’t the language that was bad, per se, but it was inappropriate in the household setting. The unspoken message was, “We just don’t talk like that at home.”

As a parent I took the same approach when my young children brought home playground language. “It’s not appropriate here,” was my message to them.

Language is a powerful thing. It’s like fire. Used appropriately it can bring benefits such as understanding and harmony. Used inappropriately it is divisive and destructive. Also, how you use language gives an impression of who you are and how you think. And what you think of others.

I’m among those who objected to Rush Limbaugh’s recent verbal attacks on Sandra Fluke. His remarks were in no way appropriate, and he’s since retracted them. However, it took a massive movement to show him just how inappropriate his language was. Without it, it would be business as usual—meaning he’d be saying the same things he’s done for the past 20 or so years.

The backlash centered around his “attack on women.” Yes, given the circumstances and the issue surrounding Limbaugh’s remarks, it was an attack on women. Many of his remarks are direct and excoriating attacks on women. But for me, it was just another example of inappropriate language bought into the national “household.”

One thing that Limbaugh does well—despite his distasteful language—is point out hypocrisies and double standards between “right” and “left” and other whole segments of society he doesn’t like. In this AP story, he’s quoted as saying, “Rappers can say anything they want about women. It’s called art. And they win awards.” He’s absolutely right. There is a sub-culture where women are routinely called whores and bitches. Not only is the language tolerated, it’s celebrated and imitated. 

A sub-tempest has developed over whether comedian Bill Maher, who donated $1 million to President Obama’s political action committee, is equally guilty for his raunchy slurs against Sarah Palin. Limbaugh and some of his supporters insist that Obama give the money back. This story in the Christian Science Monitor asks whose worse, Limbaugh or Maher?

The question is ridiculous for two reasons. First, it does nothing to solve a problem. Rather, it maintains a firm battle line between warring segments of American society. Second, it skirts the real issue.

Both Limbaugh and Maher (not to mention dozens of others) use language inappropriate within our national household. And here, you may note, I’ve walked into a trap of my own making: “Who are you to say what’s appropriate language and what isn’t? It’s all well and good for you to force your kids to watch their mouths, but don’t go trying to force your values on me!”

I got it. 

But where is the value in disrespect and divisiveness? What is the value in language that is harsh and harmful?

It may be valuable to those who have disdain for people they don’t like, but I say there is no human value to it, no societal value. But there is definitely monetary value. In this story from the Sacramento Bee, Limbaugh supporter Cal Thomas writes

A lot of what he does is theatrics designed to rev up his audience with red meat and to dramatize a point. It isn’t that he is insincere about his positions; rather, it is because the media environment, in which we are all forced to live, requires some to be louder and more emphatic than others to attract attention and ratings.

It bears repeating: The need for attention and ratings has created a “media environment in which we are all forced to live.” Rush Limbaugh and people like him—people from every political and social sector—have created the very “media environment” they (and we) are victims of. They have to be raunchy and divisive with their “red meat” language. Otherwise no one would listen to them. And then what would we do for entertainment? 

UPDATE: I just discovered this story on radio-info.com that states that Premier Networks has sent out a memo stating that 98 advertisers want to avoid “environments likely to stir negative sentiments.” The memo further states:

They’ve specifically asked that you schedule their commercials in dayparts or programs free of content that you know are deemed to be offensive or controversial (for example, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Leykis, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity). Those are defined as environments likely to stir negative sentiment from a very small percentage of the listening public.

Writing about the memo in the Daily Beast, John Avalon makes a powerful statement about being nice with language in the national household:

But the left-wing talkers being condemned are actually following a model that Rush & Co created. Complaining about the escalation on the other side while ignoring the ugliness from your ideological allies is the larger problem, and it goes beyond hypocrisy. The only way we are going to stop this cycle of incitement is if we try to apply equal standards to both sides of the aisle. It’s not a complicated concept—it’s nothing more than the golden rule we learned in nursery school: treat others as you would like to be treated. And as political commentators like the radio pioneer Will Rogers once taught us, we can make serious points using satire, humor that is not designed to divide and destroy.

6 Responses to Inappropriate Speech: It’s Not All about Rush Limbaugh

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    I am amazed at how both the left and the right (though I don’t believe in these categories), both listen non-discriminantly to their favorites.

    My wife listens to NPR — she is a huge fan and supporter. Sometimes we listen together and I point out the liberal bias – she agrees often, but begrudgingly because she does not like it when I ruin the magic show.

    When I listen to conservative talk stuff I am dazzled at the rhetoric and the simplification. Why is the hypocrisy so obvious to me and not to my conservative friends?

    Good talk here.

  2. I don’t watch much TV, but the little I do watch is probably many multiples in volume compared to what you and Sabio watch combined, largely due to my wife, who is quite fond of the Home and Garden channel, but I digress…

    I am fond of the Daily Show, so feel free to think less of me. 🙂 Although, I don’t care for everything they do, and often during passionate interviews Jon Stewart will talk over his guest a little too much, but on the whole I find it enjoyable.

    Anyway, the point I would argue is that it is tough for me to consider Limbaugh “just another entertainer.” Working with the news blurs that line considerably. For many of the points that Stewart brought up on Bill O’Reilly, you can tell that something like the Daily Show is for entertainment, or edu-tainment, if you will. They work to get the facts correct, and then crank up the sarcasm knob to 11, usually to get a laugh, but sometimes just to drive a point home. Their untruths tend to be so hyperbolic that they stand out as obvious.

    When you get to Limbaugh, though, the facts he communicates and justified objections he makes are, to me, intoned in the same manner as his untruths and exaggerations, such that it is difficult to discern truth from fiction unless you do some research of your own. Forgive me for using such a strong word, but I think that there is a kind of “evil” to that type of operation. You can see the truth of this point in some of his defenders, such as Bryan Fischer:

    Rush of course used the S-word, and my point here is from a dictionary standpoint, he was right. That’s just the description of a promiscuous woman. She’s admitting to God and the United States Congress and the United States of America that’s exactly what she is.

    Fischer took Limbaugh’s words as truth, instead of Sandra Fluke’s actual testimony.

    I find it disheartening that an offensive and outrageous voice is what makes money, and, in turn, what it takes to be heard. My ears and my heart suffer, but that doesn’t mean that the perceived truth should suffer as well.

  3. Thank you, Sabio.

    I don’t watch television either. And I’m surprised sometimes to hear people discussing certain television programs (e.g., Survivor) as though they were important.

    I remember hearing, and seeing, the news that Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. After the event was broadcast, my father said, “What’s this country coming to?” And here we are. My father, who is very conservative and can’t understand my point of view at all (that I can determine), is still shaking his head in dismay.

  4. @TWF, you said:

    Even the delivery of the same exact words can come across with different meanings from different sources.

    Oh, so very true. And, how a person interprets meaning depends on whether one agrees with or likes the speaker. Much of what the right and left say about each other is substantially the same. Although each has differing points of view on the issues, the rhetoric is similar. One thing about Limbaugh, though, is his defense that he’s just another entertainer. His specific agenda (which I’ve heard him state) is to destroy liberalism. I’m not a fan of John Stuart and the Daily Show. I have a negative view of his performance. Yet I saw his interview by Bill O’Reilly. He did a great job delineating the difference between his show and Fox News as a whole. That is, he’s a comedian making fun of social and political issues. Fox News, he pointed out, has an agenda that goes beyond entertaining and informing. He held his ground very well.

    I agree that we could use more people like like Will Rogers and Mark Twain and their level of sophistication. Trouble is, as has been pointed out, people need to be more and more outrageous and offensive to be heard. That problem has as much to do with the masses as those who would talk to them.

  5. Sabio Lantz says:

    Great essay, Paul.
    I didn’t follow the issue because (1) we don’t buy national media for our home (no channel TV). (2) I had little interest to find the details because:
    (a) I already knew about the hypocrisy
    (b) I have long been disgusted by unconscious consumption of crap on TV: reality shows, drag-out-fighting talk therapy shows, big-time-wrestling shows, survival shows and all that which I feel reinforces the worse of the human mind.

    So it was like when a boxer bites off an ear of his opponent and everyone is shocked — I say, “Really, you are shocked?”

    But you outlined information I was not aware of which was helpful. I agree, I think, that the cure needs to be deep grass-level desires to change our behavior. I am not sure how that will go. I have always thought that if people could buy individual channels to TV, their dollars would make the vote, but economy of scale and the low awareness of the general populace would probably make that no more effective.

    So meantime, as Voltaire may have alluded in Candide: “I shall attend to my garden”.

    Thanx for the fine essay — it was good morning reading.
    I also enjoyed TWF’s comment.

  6. Language is a funny, nuanced tool, for sure. Even the delivery of the same exact words can come across with different meanings from different sources. I joke with a good friend of mine about this, because his delivery is more lighthearted, and mine is more straight-laced, he can get away with saying things to people that I could never dream of saying without them getting offended.

    Specific to the Limbaugh versus Maher angle, I think they used the language in completely different ways: Limbaugh calling the woman a sl-t in association with the woman defending birth control, versus Maher saying tw-t the way he might have called a male target a d-ck. That is a fundamentally important distinction. Not that I would call either one right in doing so, but I would definitely have to judge Limbaugh as the worst offender.

    Will Rogers and Mark Twain were brilliant in tasteful satire in point making. It would be great if we could get back to that level of sophistication in speech, as I, too, think it would provide true value. It seems like the only recourse we have to force the national conversation in that direction is to apply pressure to the sponsors.

%d bloggers like this: