Limbaugh Can't Stop Insulting Women, Even When Pretending to Be Contrite
By now we have heard too much from Rush Limbaugh about women, a subject on which he has shown both vitriol and ignorance over the years. After using a series of sexist degrading terms to describe Sandra Fluke, a brave young woman, who at first was not allowed to speak at the all-male hearing before Congress on the importance of women’s health care, who then spoke to an informal committee convened by Nancy Pelosi, Rush Limbaugh has issued a statement that he calls an apology. It must be so, because he ends saying “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
Using derogatory misogynist slurs to attack Sandra Fluke’s credibility surely warrants an apology. Such an apology would recognize the harm done by the words said, would offer a corrected statement about the person so maligned, and would make promises of reform. It should express remorse or regret, not just by saying one is sincere, but by showing it through the acknowledgement of the wrongfulness of the action. A real apology is about helping to make the person harmed whole again. None of this was in Limbaugh’s brief and self-serving statement. Anyone who has listened to Rush Limbaugh’s broadcasts will see the absurdity of envisioning his engaging in such a conciliatory action.
"I sincerely apologize” does, in itself, count as an apology, but Limbaugh says this while actually side-stepping responsibility for all the rest of what he did wrong. “Insulting word choice” depreciates the harm. Words matter, and in this case the slurs are doing double duty, operating on a visceral level to vilify and demean Ms. Fluke, and calling forth a cultural NIMBY phenomenon. Pay for contraception? Not in my backyard!
To paraphrase that most faithful of good elephants, Horton, Rush meant what he said and said what he meant. No one is confused about this. Paraphrase away the slurs into more polite terms, and what remains is still an attack: she “wants to be paid to have sex,” “she's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception,” and Gingrich and Santorum should “spy on Sandra Fluke and interrupt her in mid-coitus.” Incitement or absurdity? Both.
A real apology addresses the actual wrong done. In flagrantly misrepresenting Sandra Fluke’s testimony, Limbaugh not only attacked her character, but also maligned the 98% of American women who use contraception. His illogical rant bears analysis primarily because it has shaped subsequent national discourse. His method of misogynist character assassination worked to recast the discussion about women’s control of our reproductive systems. The issue is women’s control over our own bodies. He got the country talking about whether our health care plans should ‘pay women to have sex’. This is ridiculous.
Limbaugh suggests that a woman who seeks to control her own body, particularly her odds of becoming pregnant, must be promiscuous. He suggests that a woman who thinks that reproductive care, including contraception, should be part of a standard health care plan, must be a prostitute. He says she is asking to be paid to have sex. This would mean that people who take digitalis are being paid to have a functioning heart, people who have their broken legs set are being paid to walk, and men who have prostate treatment are being paid to keep urinating. Ridiculous.
Georgetown President John DeGogia said that Sandra Fluke “was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people.” Yes, and yet Sandra Fluke’s civil and thoughtful testimony is lost in the noise over contraception as pimping for prostitution. Millions of people tune in daily to hear Limbaugh be uncivil. It is time to demand greater civility from the media. Rush Limbaugh could learn a thing or two from Sandra Fluke about how to reason, how to stand tall for a principle and a cause, and how to actually engage with an issue. What we learn from Limbaugh is how to bully.
While padding his non-apology by defending his attack on contraception, Limbaugh asks some rhetorical questions that he should take more seriously as he prepares his on-air remarks: “What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow?” Good questions, Rush.
Lynne Tirrell is Associate Professor of Philosophy, U Mass Boston.