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.

Occupy RushMouth

Rush Limbaugh by Ian Marsden

Drawing by Ian Marsden, courtesy WikiCommons

Twenty years ago or so, I listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I’d heard of him and wanted to know what was so special. Even though I didn’t agree with his politics, I thought it was appropriate to hear what he had to say and judge for myself.

I hung in there for a couple of months, listening to his newspaper-rattling and sighs of disgust while slurring and maligning any person or idea he didn’t like or agree with. 

He claimed he was just an “entertainer.” But his stated goal was to destroy liberalism. I listened as much as I could. And then one day I said to myself, “That’s enough.” I switched him off. 

Every once in a while I’d come across a story about him and wonder, “Do people still listen to him?” Yet I’ve read he has millions of listeners—5 million–20 million. Whatever the number, it’s a lot.  

In spite of his stated objectives—however misguided—no good can come from his hateful speech. Limbaugh’s inability to see it underscores his own delusion. And 20 million pats on the back each day is a lot of encouragement to stay in the dark. Yet because millions believe he’s right doesn’t mean he is. Twenty million people can be wrong.

We are fortunate in this country that physical assassination is a rare thing. But character assassination is acceptable, legal, and prevalent. Rush Limbaugh is not an entertainer. His recent attack on Sandra Fluke is character assassination. Not that she’s his first hit, but she is suddenly in the spotlight over an issue that’s important and personal to many people. 

The caricature above suggests Rush Limbaugh is the face of the Republican party. The face is where the mouth is. While the Republican candidates stumble all over each other trying to prove who is the more conservative, the mouth of the party is busy spewing hatred and contempt. If the mouthpiece is delusional and morally corrupt, what we say about the rest of the party?

Some of us believe it’s proper for a government of by and for the people to help those in need. It’s a point of view, not a disease. The real disease festers in the mouth of Rush Limbaugh.

The Occupy Movement has more territory to cover.

What is Skillful?

I began this series with some thoughts on the differences between liberals and conservatives—views that have everything to do with one’s beliefs about things like justice, patriotism, authority, and spiritual purity. Most recently, I concluded that one’s actions, what one does, are fundamental to one’s morality and live outside the above categories. On the surface it may sound as if I’m saying there is a difference between belief and action. Not at all. Belief and action are interrelated. 

I suggested that morality and virtue are skills one can develop, much like a musician or a woodworker can develop skills. A person can be skillful at being a person. 

Sabio, a commenter on my earlier post, responded:

…I would say the normal use of this word is:

Skillful: the quality of actions which allow acquiring the desired product with a specific qualifier such as better, faster, prettier, effeciently ….

[…]

All to say, I don’t think “Skillful” is going to get us anywhere in building a ethical nest that will be universally comfortable nor conforming to everyone’s common sense.

Well, I’m not attempting to find some common ground that is universally comfortable or conforming. That’s futility in action (possibly, what I’m talking about here is futility in action too). But I do maintain that one can be a morally skillful person according to the above definition. In that regard, I must define morally skillful actions as those that when carried out result in one’s longterm benefit and the longterm benefit of others. If my actions benefit me but harm someone else then they would not qualify as skillful. 

The difficulty—and here I use “difficulty” in its strongest sense—is discerning between what is skillful and what is unskillful, between what is harmful and what is beneficial. This takes a lot of work. It requires an ongoing examination of one’s actions and their results. To do so, one must first shed the armor of self-deception. That, too, is difficult.

What actions can we consider harmful? I think we can all agree that causing someone physical harm would not be to that person’s benefit. Certainly, killing someone would cause the maximum harm and would be unskillful. And here I can hear the rebuttals: What about executing dangerous criminals? What about killing terrorists who would kill us first? What about war to defend our country? Remember, I’m talking about developing qualities in oneself that would be morally skillful as opposed to morally unskillful. If you are the kind of person who never harms anyone or anything in any way, I have nothing to fear from you. Nothing at all. Regardless of who you are or where you’re from.

Further, if one professes non-harm in one circumstance but does harm in another, then there is a double-standard. Double standards are suspect.

Words also can cause harm. All of us are familiar with this one. But which is more skillful, honesty or dishonesty? How about words spoken with kindness or words spoken in anger or hatred? Or word used to bring people together and not divide? If you are the kind of person who never lies to anyone and always speaks kindly, then I am sure what you tell me is true and you will never malign me. 

Further, if one professes honesty in one circumstance but is dishonest in another, then there is a double standard. Double standards are suspect.

I can apply the same argument to stealing. If you never take anything that isn’t given to you, then I can trust that you will never steal anything from me. 

What I’m getting at here—aside from bringing this series to an end—is that morality and virtue have nothing to do with blind allegiance to doctrines or ideologies, or with professions of faith for that matter. Morality has everything to do with action. Actions spring forth from a core belief that acknowledges, Everything I do, for good or bad, has a consequence for me and for others. And what a person doesn’t do could be of greater moral significance than what a person does. 

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