The Process Can Be Ugly, And Sure Was This Time, But This Is How Cultural Ethics Standards Change

Greta was the tipping point.

The Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke Ethics Train Wreck is over at last, but unlike with many such debacles, something positive occurred. I believe that an emphatic cultural standard was established that calling a woman—any woman, famous or not, liberal or conservative—a derogatory term designed purely to denigrate her by denigrating her gender will not be considered acceptable in political, quasi-political or arguably-political commentary henceforward. If such rhetoric occurs in a comic or entertainment context, no politician or elected official can appear to endorse the individual who utters the offensive words.

I’m not arguing right now whether this is a good or a bad development, but merely that it happened, and that it is a real change. For this to happen, a conservative radio talk show host had to use the terms “slut’ and “prostitute” to make the botched satirical point that a feminist law student activist who argued that free contraceptives were a woman’s right was the equivalent of women who wanted to be “paid for sex.” If pundits and bloggers had merely declared this statement uncivil and cruel, nothing more would have happened, and the incident would have been quickly forgotten. But sensing political points to be scored in an election year, and with the added incentive of being handed what was seen as powerful ammunition to attempt a frontal attack against a detested partisan critic, Democrats,  progressives, feminists, activists, Obama strategists and left-biased journalists decided to cast the Limbaugh’s poor judgment in extreme terms.

Such rhetoric was part of an effort to silence women, to wage war on them, to reduce them to second-class citizenship, they said. It was hate-speech, and Limbaugh should be sued (Fluke), forced off the air (Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem), or prosecuted ( Gloria Allred). The Left, encouraged by the White House, organized a boycott to drive him from the air. And so certain of its firm grip on a double standard for progressive supporters’ misogyny were the Limbaugh attackers that they didn’t merely try to ignore the many instances when their allies employed equally or even more vile anti-female rhetoric, they continued to openly embrace these same vicious individuals while simultaneously vilifying Limbaugh.

Right before Limbaugh’s gaffe, Obama’s PAC accepted a million dollars from comedian/political pundit Bill Maher, though he had repeatedly used terms like slut, bimbo, cunt and twat to describe Republican women on his HBO show. As Obama strategist David Axelrod continued to slam Limbaugh in interviews, it was discovered that he was booked to appear on Maher’s program. The President piously injected himself into the controversy by saying, as he rallied to Fluke’s side, that he was thinking of his young daughters—as his wife, Michelle Obama, accepted a booking on the late night show of David Letterman, who has repeatedly denigrated the character of Sarah Palin and, despicably, her daughters.

MSNBC’s liberal echo chamber attacked Limbaugh, though one of its members, Ed Schultz, had called conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham a slut, and had been allowed to escape with a fictional apology on the cable network while, on the same day, he ridiculed the idea that he owed Ingraham an apology on his radio show, where he had made the statement in the first place. And still for a while the double standard held, as the media accepted the increasingly puzzling argument that Limbaugh calling a law student a slut was so significantly different in kind that he should be shunned while a TV satirist calling Sarah Plain a “dumb twat” could be embraced without shame.

The tipping point came when someone at the Radio & TV Correspondents’ Association decided to really rub the double standards in conservative faces by inviting comedian Louis C.K. to be the host of its annual dinner. The comic had earlier  gone on an obscene misogynistic rant against—you guessed it—Sarah Palin, among other things referring to “her fucking retard-making cunt.” President Obama wanted to guard his daughters against people like Limbaugh, but would be in attendance laughing at C.K.?  It was too much to pull off. Fox News host Greta Van Susteran called the Association out on its hypocrisy on her show, declaring that Loiis C.K. was “a pig,” that she would not attend the dinner if he was at the podium and that no one else should either.

That did it.

C.K. withdrew. A day later, Sen. Chuck Shumer sounded idiotic trying to explain to George Stephanopoulis why a political pundit/ satirist calling one Democratic woman a slut was infinitely worse than a comic/political pundit calling a Republican Vice-Presidential candidate a cunt. It had something to do with whose audience was bigger, Shumer theorized…or, he didn’t say, which party a misogynist favored. Amazingly, the media and the public wouldn’t let the double standard stand!  Axelrod de-booked from Maher. Maher’s million dollars is an embarrassment to the President’s campaign, but there are plenty of others, so the money might stay put. I’ll be interested to see if Michelle keeps her date with Letterman.

At this point, any pundit, talk show commentator or political figure, regardless of party or ideology, that uses denigrating terms for women is taking a big risk, because the culture has made its decision. It took rudeness, gall, arrogance, hypocrisy, posturing, gracelessness, mean-spiritedness and stupidity—-along with some common sense and courage (Thanks, Greta!) to get there, but get there we did.

And that, my friends, is how cultural ethical norms get made.

 

28 thoughts on “The Process Can Be Ugly, And Sure Was This Time, But This Is How Cultural Ethics Standards Change

  1. And all this because Limbaugh, in an unguarded moment of outrage, let a single bad word slip. All his years on the radio would not produce as much bad content as a single episode of “Two and A Half Men”. The difference being, of course, that in the latter case- and in the cases you mentioned- it’s fully intentional and sequential besides. The double standard is monumental.

    • The double standard is absurd, but I also think it is so much shakier after this that anyone who relies on it is a fool. If, for example, Maher dropped the C word again, Obama WOULD give back his mil. He might anyway.

      But Rush doesn’t let words “slip.” He knew what he was doing–he just miscalculated.

    • unguraded? I dont think it was unguarded at all, I think he was doing what he always does . speaking about something on air off the top of his head and he said what he really thought.

      I wouldnt compare Two and Half Men to what Rush and these other people did. Its one thing to use that language about fictional characters its another to use to it to describe real people.

      • Rush rarely just “speaks off the top of his head”, Bill. He’s too professional for that, as numerous awards testify. But, like most great commentators, he can also ad lib. This is what can get even the best of them into trouble. Some have speculated that this was a big part of what Sandra Fluke was set up to do. If so, it largely backfired.

        And don’t dismiss that TV how as just “fictional characters”. That excuse (one of many such from Hollywood) is used to smokescreen to cover excesses of content that are aimed at young audiences. Vileness and political propaganda alike.

  2. As I’ll say again, Rush’s issue wasn’t simply that he used the word slut, it’s than his argument was that Sandra Fluke should be ignored because she’s a slut. He was claiming that only sluts need birth control.

    It’s also false to claim that Rush is simply a political pundit/satirist. Politicians don’t pander to the audiences of individual pundits. They don’t court their advice. Rush is a Republican thought leader.

    Claiming Louis C.K. is a political pundit is even more ridiculous than your claims about Rush. He’s a comic that something talks about political things. You might as well call me a political pundit.

    • tgt, I didn’t say ANYWHERE, that C.K. was a pundit. I said that the it was absurd for the same people screaming over Limbaugh’s words to recruit this pig to host a dinner at which Obama would be sitting—he who is so concerned about his daughters being treated with respect as women. And that is correct.

      No one who listens to Limbaugh even occasionally and who pays attention to the GOP would ever say he is a “thought-leader” of the party. If he was a “thought leader”, Rick Santorum would be the leader for the nomination. He has laid out his various strategies to win back the White House, and they have been and will be ignored.

      The argument is cynical Democratic propaganda (designed as an insult to legitimate Republicans) and a self-evident lie to any objective and informed observer. It is exactly like saying that Michael Moore is a “thought-leader” for the Democrats.

      • tgt, I didn’t say ANYWHERE, that C.K. was a pundit. I said that the it was absurd for the same people screaming over Limbaugh’s words to recruit this pig to host a dinner at which Obama would be sitting—he who is so concerned about his daughters being treated with respect as women. And that is correct.

        It’s possible I misinterpretted something. Does sentence 2 not relate to sentence 1: “C.K. withdrew. A day later, Sen. Chuck Shumer sounded idiotic trying to explain to George Stephanopoulis why a political pundit/ satirist calling one Democratic woman a slut was infinitely worse than a comic/political pundit calling a Republican Vice-Presidential candidate a cunt.”

        If the second sentence was about Bill Maher, I retract that comment, but am then confused at why you juxtaposed them.

        No one who listens to Limbaugh even occasionally and who pays attention to the GOP would ever say he is a “thought-leader” of the party. If he was a “thought leader”, Rick Santorum would be the leader for the nomination. He has laid out his various strategies to win back the White House, and they have been and will be ignored.

        Santorum and Gingrich have been splitting the “true” conservative vote. If it was Santorum vs Romney, The delegate count would be reversed.

        As for actual evidence, this says it all: http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2009/03/03/gop-to-michael-steele-quiet-about-rush-limbaugh-or-youre-fired

        The argument is cynical Democratic propaganda (designed as an insult to legitimate Republicans) and a self-evident lie to any objective and informed observer. It is exactly like saying that Michael Moore is a “thought-leader” for the Democrats.

        Do polititicans ask what Michael Moore thinks? Would the democratic party be upset if one of it’s members was calling out Michael Moore for his ideas or methods? No.

        The remark about being self-evident is also false, but I’m going to chalk that up to slightly sloppy language.

  3. You did a great job on this post, Jack. We need to clean up our language period, not just the language directed at women. This is not the type of language I grew up with. I was not raised that way.

  4. Rush Limbaugh often speaks “brutal truth” the name “slut” is an offensive word; freedom of speech still exists. The truth is simple in this case, anyone who engages in serial sex with various men (visa versa) and I guess I should add (serial sex with same sex too), is a ‘slut’ by actual definition. To be ‘upset’ by an offensive word–more so than the actual offensive conduct is ridiculous!

    What is even ‘more offensive’ than all that, is when one gets all passionate about having TAX PAYERS foot the bill for serial sex at all. It makes sense to be passionate about tax payers footing the bill for dental, and serious medical issues–but SEX? Here’s a thought: “Do not do it!” Choosing NOT to do SEX at all, is FREE.

    Do the math; the whimpering student was talking about the most ‘expensive’ form of birth control. Go get a condom they are handed out for free usually based on grants or tax payer dollars in some states. Tax payers put a great deal of MONEY into educating people and encouraging them to use the highest most effective form of contraceptive on the market “abstaining.”

    Yet; at a college which is supposedly a rung higher than local state community colleges, a student wants to passionately beg for tax payer’s money to pander to a spoiled band of wealthy ‘serial sex’ crazed students, ignoring basic sex education? Can anyone say educated-dummy?

    Freedom of speech is the platform that student stood on to be absurd.
    Freedom of speech is the platform Rush stood on to speak the truth.
    Truth trumps stupidity

    • You show a breathtaking ignorance of Ms. Fluke’s testimony. She was not advocating for insurance coverage for birth control pills to prevent pregnancy. She was advocating for coverage for the use of birth control pills to treat any number of medical conditions. My daughter has a severe form of endometriosis, and the treatment is birth control pills. Unfortunately, condoms will not work. And the cheapest brand of birth control pills may not, either. Rush showed the same ignorance.

      • She was advocating insurance coverage of birth control pills period, for whatever reason. Rush’s comments were ignorant in many ways, but he did not misrepresent her core position, which is that women have a right to full insurance coverage of contraception expenses, whatever their use.

        • I stand corrected that Fluke’s position is that contraception should be covered no matter what the reason, but the majority of her testimony dealt with women’s health issues outside pregnancy. Ovarian cysts, endometriosis, rape. Both Rush’s and the above post give the impression that her only concern was that her sex life should continue unimpeded by the danger of getting pregnant. That is misleading and misrepresents the overall message of Fluke’s testimony. I’ll edit my statement to read “She was not simply advocating for insurance coverage for birth control pills to prevent pregnancy,” and will admit that I misrepresented her testimony, as well.

          • “a feminist law student activist who argued that free contraceptives were a woman’s right” was my statement, and that’s 100% accurate. She did not distinguish between the various uses…she argued for all. There are legitimate logical objections to that argument that have nothing to do with any so-called “war on women.”

            • I don’t believe she argued that contraceptives should be “free.” She merely argued that they should be covered by insurance. And her testimony was predominantly (meaning more than fifty percent) devoted to women who used contraceptives for reasons other than preventing pregnancy. What I am asking for is accuracy in reporting, and I am vexed with myself for not being accurate myself. I never mentioned a War on Women. But when a legislature tries to pass a law that allows an employer to interrogate an woman about why they are prescribed birth control, that’s pretty close (see Arizona).

              • That’s a Clintonian argument. She argued that she alone shouldn’t have to pay for them; that everyone else should be contributing to the costs of her contraception. The point is that those who are not getting the product or service are forced to pay for someone who is. That’s what got Rush on his ill-fated “give me something for my money”=”give me something for the sexual activities I am paying for”=”give me videos” tongue-in-cheek argument.

                • I am not black. I should have to pay for sickle cell anemia coverage. Black men, do work on my farm so I get something for paying for you to live.

                  It’s a stupid point. That’s how medical insurance is supposed to work.

  5. I’ve never liked Rush. Ive always found him to be a blow hard idiot who has never let a llack of knowledge about a topic get in the way about having an opinionn on it. But with that said this move to have him fired and the outrage about what he said has gotten ridiculous. Should he have called her those names? No. But for people on the left to go after him when so many else do the exact same thing but those peoples political beliefs are in line with theirs is disgusting.

  6. Jack, by this post are you saying that you, too, will be more cautious in the future about using a certain term?

    I am harking back to the January time frame and the discussion of Sydney, the high school senior who wanted a sexy (and inappropriate, in my view) photo of herself in her school yearbook.

    At that time, I commented, under my old name, Proam: “I would just like to caution and exhort everyone against using the 4-letter s-word, except in the rarest circumstances, no matter how little or much you know a female whom you talk about.” I was referring to the word “slut.”

    A long string of comments in your blog ensued – discussing, among other points, how misogyny can and does lurk in use of “slut.”

    Do you agree now that use of “slut,” even when intended purely as a descriptive term, is imprudent in the overwhelming majority of public discussions about persons, regardless of the abundance of evidence that confirms a particular person’s character and behavior?

    I do agree with you to some extent that “a word is a word.” I, too, like you I believe, am extra wary of attempts at censorship, at control-freaky speech that seems slyly aimed at suppressing others’ free speech for the benefit of the control freak’s unfettered freedom of “bully speech.”

    But I also think there is some speech that is most effective, and used most wisely, when kept fastidiously in (for lack of a better term) private channels.

    • No.
      “Slut,’ like “jerk” and “fool” and many other words has legitimate uses and meanings. I have even, on occasion, used “ass-hole” when it was called for.

      The context you refer to, in my view, was called for. The young woman was intentionally portraying herself as sexually available to all comers—that’s called “behaving like a slut.” Limbaugh used the term to mischaracterize conduct and denigrate a political view. That’s just name calling.

      Similarly, saying an argument is idiotic—when it is— is preferable to calling someone an idiot for making it. Someone who makes repeated idiotic arguments, however, raises a rebuttable presumption that he is, in fact an idiot. Civility does not require showing respect in all cases for someone who has forfeited the right to respect.

      • “Behaving like a slut,” or “dressing and posing like a slut,” neither of which are what you said about Sydney, are legitimate uses and meanings that are descriptive, are not personal attacks, and that do not give a platform for misogyny like “Sydney apparently wants to be remembered as the class slut,” which is how you described Sydney’s self-portrayal – more like than unlike how Limbaugh characterized Sandra Fluke.

        I agree with the points in the last paragraph of your reply above, and agree strongly with your final sentence. Just like with Sydney’s racy photo, confining the use of certain words to certain contexts increases the power or potential power and clarity of the communication. But on the other hand, using the same words or images imprudently – in the wrong context, mostly, but also over-using them in general – diminishes both the power of the words or images, and the power (and/or credibility) of the person using them. That diminishing will occur eventually if not right away, even when the words (like “slut”) or images reflect abuse of power – such as the bullying of a personal attack, or the arrogance of a you-can’t-say-that-word-ever-but-I-can-say-it-anytime double standard, or the malicious caricaturizing evident in political cartoons.

        I gather that you and I take different approaches to “rebuttable presumptions,” conclusions on persons’ character, and allowing persons opportunity for reform and redemption. But, I believe I understand where you are coming from, because with my advancing age, the hardest thing for me to be is ever more patient.

        • (You can see the context of this exchange here.)

          What I wrote, in fact, was that Sydney apparently “wants to be remembered as the class slut.” If she tried to get a picture of herself into the yearbook with a red nose, big shoes and a duck on her head, I’d say she was trying to be remembered as the class clown. If she submitted a photo of herself lying in the gutter guzzling a bottle of gin, I’d say she sought renown as the class drunk. OK: her photo shows a shapely blond in a short skirt and a bare midriff, flashing a bare leg, heading upstairs and flashing an “are you coming, big boy?” look right out of the arsenal of Jean Harlow. What I wrote is an accurate descriptin of what I think she is trying to convey. For all I know, the real Syd is a mousey brunette who spends every Saturday night playing Soduku. But she wanted to send a message…an inappropriate one for that medium…that she is hot, sexually active and looking for partners. The attack on her, such as it was in the post, was that her attempted use of the yearbook was narcissistic, tasteless, selfish and irresponsible. Which it was. Because she wanted to turn the year book into an ad for her own sexuality. Sydney went over the line, and I describes how…I wasn’t name-calling. I think the distinction between that and what Rush did—nothing Fluke said suggests the style, behavior, aspirations or image of a slut. Thus using the word in connection with her was uncivil, and unfair.

          That’s not the word’s fault.

          • I will concede that relative to Sydney’s photo, Sandra Fluke’s public exposure and known behavior (apart from a possible figurative characterization of her politicking) has certainly not come anywhere close to suggesting that Fluke is the person Limbaugh called her (in his use of absurdist humor, yet still not excusable – that’s not the form of humor’s fault). We all have our confirmation biases and other reasons for our tendencies to reach the conclusions we reach.

            At the same time, I will not concede that Sydney, as a result of her photo, deserves more public ridicule than can be related to how her photo suggests her ignorance of, or lack of adherence to, basic ethical character qualities – which may or may not be bundled with whatever attitudes she holds, or behaviors she engages in, related to sex. “Slut” may suggest lack of certain qualities (or abundance of others), but it’s more a label, a conclusion that a “settled and steady state” exists. In contrast, saying that one is “being narcissistic” is not saying one IS a narcissist.

            The opposites of the positive ethical qualities which you listed in your reply above – characterizing Sydney’s photo and by extension, characterizing what Sydney suggests of herself (“narcissistic, tasteless, selfish and irresponsible”) – I believe are adequate and fair to use in public criticism. A slut may well be all of those things – or none of them. You may be absolutely correct about why Sydney made that photo and why she wanted it in her school yearbook. (But I suspect you’re far off the mark.) I am not “blaming the word” any more than you are “blaming the camera.”

            I just think that use of “slut” in public discussion of a specific person is only hurtful to that person, even if the word is accurate. For me and for my choice of speech within what I think is ethical, I cannot and will not use “slut” in public discussion of another person; it is one of those strong terms that I intend to reserve for very rare use in private, one-to-one discussion. Public use of that term sets off my personal ethics alarms; it is too easy to use it as “bully speech” in any context, public or private. Public use of it in particular strikes me as reckless, a reflection of some combination of two Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions, and is negligent of the Second Niggardly Principle: (20) The Free Speech Confusion and (14) Hamm’s Excuse applied to the word (i.e., “It’s not the word’s fault,” or, “It’s not my fault that the word offends so many other people besides the one person I intended it to apply to”).

  7. Rush Limbaugh often speaks “brutal truth” the name “slut” is an offensive word; freedom of speech still exists. The truth is simple in this case, anyone who engages in serial sex with various men (visa versa) and I guess I should add (serial sex with same sex too), is a ‘slut’ by actual definition. To be ‘upset’ by an offensive word–more so than the actual offensive conduct is ridiculous!

    What is even ‘more offensive’ than all that, is when one gets all passionate about having TAX PAYERS foot the bill for serial sex at all. It makes sense to be passionate about tax payers footing the bill for dental, and serious medical issues–but SEX? Here’s a thought: “Do not do it!” Choosing NOT to do SEX at all, is FREE.

    Do the math; the whimpering student was talking about the most ‘expensive’ form of birth control. Go get a condom they are handed out for free usually based on grants or tax payer dollars in some states. Tax payers put a great deal of MONEY into educating people and encouraging them to use the highest most effective form of contraceptive on the market “abstaining.”

    Yet; at a college which is supposedly a rung higher than local state community colleges, a student wants to passionately beg for tax payer’s money to pander to a spoiled band of wealthy ‘serial sex’ crazed students, ignoring basic sex education? Can anyone say educated-dummy?

    Freedom of speech is the platform that student stood on to be absurd.
    Freedom of speech is the platform Rush stood on to speak the truth.
    Truth trumps stupidity

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