Saturday, March 3, 2012

Name-Calling, Distortion, and Hypocrisy in the Limbaugh-Fluke Episode

There's a whole lot of incivility -- as well as sub-par attempts at civility -- involved in the recent incident between conservative radio pundit Rush Limbaugh and Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke.

First, the name-calling, which is what Limbaugh resorted to February 29, 2012, by calling Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for asking that other people help pay for her contraception.
"What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex."
We can argue about whether or not health insurers or taxpayers should be paying for people's contraception when they can avoid pregnancy by abstaining from sex. (Another option would be for men to help their female sex partners pay for contraception, since they're benefiting from it if they also want to avoid pregnancy.) Limbaugh can take a stance on that issue -- he's opposed to taxpayers picking up the tab -- without resorting to that kind of invective. But he didn't, so he owes Fluke an apology.

Second, the distortion: Some people have misrepresented Limbaugh as being opposed to women having any access to contraception whatsoever. For instance, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), March 1, 2012:
"I rise this morning to say to Rush Limbaugh, shame on you. … Shame on you for calling the women of this country sluts and prostitutes, 'cause that's what he did. Ninety-eight percent of the women in this country at some time in their lives use birth control, and yet he went on the air recently and called Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute because she was trying to access birth control pills".
Certainly, Limbaugh sometimes summarized the situation as Fluke wanting to "be paid to have sex", but his overall remarks make it clear that he knows she's not asking for money in exchange for sex, and that he's not opposed to women using contraception altogether. Rather, he doesn't think taxpayers should have to pay for Fluke's contraception. Given that, it's a distortion to say that he's "calling the women of this country sluts and prostitutes".

Finally, the hypocrisy, coming in the form of the usual selective commitment to civility.

President Barack Obama called Fluke, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney March 2, 2012, described the purpose of the call:
"He wanted to express his disappointment that she has been the subject of inappropriate, personal attacks, and to thank her for exercising her rights as a citizen to speak out on an issue of public policy. … They had a very good conversation. I think he, like a lot of people, feels that the kinds of personal attacks that she's -- that have been directed her way are inappropriate. The fact that our political discourse has become debased in many ways is bad enough. It is worse when it's directed at private citizen who was simply expressing her views on a matter of public policy."
This is all well and good on its own, but there have been plenty of instances recently where Obama has refrained or even refused to denounce name-calling, such as when Republicans are the victims of it.

For instance, comedian and political commentator Bill Maher has used the words "cunt", "twat", and "bimbos" to refer to female members of the Republican Party such as former Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN). Obama never called them to express moral support. Obama also said nothing after May 24, 2011, when liberal TV pundit Ed Schultz called conservative radio pundit Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut".

And President Obama didn't criticize James "Jimmy" Hoffa, Jr., after Hoffa made this statement at a Labor Day rally on September 5, 2011, about the Tea Party movement:
"President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let's take these son of a bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong".
Obama spoke after Hoffa at the rally, but offered no criticism. In fact, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer clearly stated that Obama had no responsibility whatsoever to act as the "speech police" and rein in the rhetoric of Democrats.

A week later, Obama's presidential campaign unfurled, a website dedicated to policing the speech of Republicans who say unfair things about Obama.

This is the typical self-serving commitment to civility: Denounce incivility when it means condemning your political opponents, but not if it would involve condemning your allies or sticking up for your opponents.

This doesn't set a good example, it just encourages cynicism about civility.

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