Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vulgarity vs. Insulting

Apparently, Faux News is comparing Bill Maher's calling Sarah Palin a "cunt", a "twat", and a "MILF" with Rush Limbaugh's labeling of Sandra Fluke a "slut".  This is apparently part of a campaign my friend David Matthews 2 calls a "false equivalency".  If it's OK for Bill Maher to use vulgar language in referring to a woman, this is no better than Rush Limbaugh.  If you accept Bill Maher's vulgarity, you must accept Rush's.

Let me see if I can shed some light on why this is a false equivalency.  Bill Maher's stock in trade, like many other comedians, is to use vulgar language routinely.  Many people are offended by vulgar language - as luck would have it, I'm not one of them - but enough people dislike vulgar language (to the point of being offended by it) that it's generally forbidden in most public media.  Cable comedy programs have been featuring vulgar language for years, as have comedians in nightclubs.  This has a loooong tradition, of course, going back many decades.  Vulgar language, like it or not, is a part of the vocabularies of many people in real life.  To use vulgar references to people is not necessarily an insult - it's simply a vulgar way to refer to someone.  Such language has shock value and, therefore, is a part of many comedians' acts, simply for its shock value.  I admit freely to using vulgar language frequently, precisely for its shock value.  Many people find it astonishing to hear me use it.  It has no mandatory interpretation as an insult, in and of itself.  For example, if I were to use the word "nigger" in reference to a black person - which is not formally an obscenity but certain has a lot of negative associations - I don't necessarily mean an insult.  Any more than when African Americans use the word "nigger' among themselves.  Of course, "nigger" can be used as an insult, to refer to someone who fits a certain stereotype.  As can "cunt" or "twat" or "MILF".  But its use is only vulgarity, and not necessarily insulting.

For Rush Limbaugh to use the word "slut" to refer to any woman who wishes to engage in sex for any reason other than marital procreation is, on the other hand, clearly an insult.  Rush is condemning her for her sex life - manifestly her business, not Rush's.  His radio program isn't routinely peppered with vulgar expressions.  He isn't about using terms for their shock value as part of his programmatic message - in  fact, he represents himself as a moral authority, as well as many other mantles of right-wing ideological purity.  It's out of character for him to use vulgarity.  Therefore, his use of the word "slut" can only be interpreted as an insult directed at this woman.  He's on his moral high horse and making it very clear that any woman who might wish to engage in sexual activity for any reason other than becoming pregnant within a marriage (between a man and a woman) is, in his view, a moral trangression - a sin.  He's casting Sandra Fluke into the outer darkness reserved for evil sinners.

I don't endorse Bill Maher's use of vulgarity in reference to Sarah Palin.  It's not necessary to draw attention to her failings.  The use of demeaning terms for women is problematic at a time when women are under attack from many quarters, even such a woman as Sarah Palin.  I certainly have little or no respect for Sarah Palin, but I don't think she should be described in such ways by public figures.  This essay isn't intended to justify the language Bill Maher has used.  Rather, it's to deny the equivalency between that and Rush Limbaugh's statement about Sandra Fluke.

I'd like to close this by saying that the withdrawal of Rush's advertisers is an example of an indirect way to limit free speech.  As much as I detest Rush's comments about Sandra Fluke, he has the right in the USA to express his opinions in any way he wishes, including being insulting.  If someone has a problem with what Rush is saying, they should simply stop listening to his show.  A declining listenership would be a very effective way to voice your opinion about Rush.  Calling for the cancellation of his show, or the withdrawal of his advertising, are forms of censorship to which I'm philosophically opposed.  Ignoring him is a much more satisfactory way to let him know how you feel than to demand that he be subjected to censorship.  Freedom and liberty are for everyone, including people with whom you disagree.  Especially for those with whom you disagree!


Weather Guesser said...

I disagree that the withdrawal of sponsors is limiting "free speech". Neither you nor I require sponsorship to offer our opinions freely. I do not agree with Mr. Limbaugh's positions nor do I agree with his choice of language to express his viewpoints. I will defend his right to say it. However, that right doesn't come with the necessity of a radio "network" built around it.

When listeners (and non-listeners) object to what Mr. Limbaugh said and decide to reject companies that support his business, they are practicing free speech, too. And the businesses that respect the opinions of their customers are practicing the concepts of the "free market". Likewise, the companies are practicing the concepts of the "free market" by removing their support from a person or product that doesn't provide a useful benefit to them.

If Mr. Limbaugh has to voice his opinions with a smaller microphone, no one has affected his free speech. He is still permitted to say whatever he likes but freedom of speech doesn't guarantee a megaphone to accompany that speech.

--Kevin Huyck.

Chuck Doswell said...

Your point, insofar as it goes, is a point well-taken. However, it's a rather literal interpretation of what "freedom of speech" means in this day and age. Having listeners choose to stop listening to Rush's show is a very different way to respond than for the sponsors to bail out and threaten the very continuance of the show.

Rush is certainly free to yell his opinions out of his bedroom window or to present them in speaking engagements around the world if he gets the invitations, but his access to a wide audience is threatened if his sponsor bail out and the show is cancelled for lack of sponsorship. I see that as a subtle form of censorship - enforced political correctness, if you will.

I don't support what he says, but I'm willing to allow him the opportunity to make an ass of himself on his radio show. In fact, I like the fact that he has access to a "large microphone". It exposes what a jerk he is to as many people as possible.

I do appreciate your comments - they are entirely appropriate and are an example of the sort of discussion I hope my blog can generate! Thank you for your contribution! Even if we don't see exactly eye-to-eye ...