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.