Monday, March 5, 2012

The Power of Words: The Rush Limbaugh Edition

Lately I’ve been angry about something, and it feels good to finally be getting it out there.  This has nothing to do with my writing, but it does deal with words and the power they hold.  I’m sure we’ve all heard by now how Rush Limbaugh spent three days on his radio show talking about Sandra Fluke and her testimony before Congress.  She made the point that the pill can potentially be expensive for someone in college, and that the pill is often used to treat a medical condition.  These things are true.  Are there cheap off brand versions available?  Yes, of course.  Then again, your doctor decides on your prescription, and some of the off brands don’t work for everyone.  If you’re one of these women, costs can add up.  That being said, should insurance companies be mandated to pay for these prescriptions in their entirety?  This is the question we should be focusing on.  Instead, this issue has turned into a mudslinging match of the worst kind.

Now, as a writer, I’m glad that we have freedom of speech.  It’s a wonderful thing, and every time I hear about people wanting to impose limitations on that freedom, I get very nervous.  If we lose that right, we may as well give up everything else as far as I’m concerned.  You can’t have real freedom if you can’t express yourself.  And when Rush Limbaugh made his comments about Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” he was certainly exercising his right to free speech.  You’ll never catch me disputing that.  Does that make what he said right?  No.

Let me explain my position.  I never subscribed to the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  That’s complete crap.  Bullies say horrible things precisely because they hurt.  The best we can do is not let the mean-spirited words of others get under our skin, which is much easier said than done.  I know this all too well.  The bullying I endured as a kid helped shape me into the person I am today.

So I can say this with confidence.  Words are powerful.  They can persuade, inspire, create, and destroy.  “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  This is a saying I can get behind, except, of course, someone’s actually making fun of me from the corner of a room while someone’s impaling me with a sword.  That is one instance where I may be inclined to change my position on this.

Rush used the words he did because he knew they were laced with powerful meaning.  He knew they would get a reaction.  I’m sure he said what he did to be funny, and many people did find it funny.  I won’t dispute that either.  However, his choice of words angered many, including me, because it suggested a belief that many no longer find acceptable:  if a woman is sexually active, it’s okay to call her a slut.  It’s not, in my humble opinion.  He even suggested that he’d pay to give girls aspirin to put between their knees.   Yes, sex is something that should be handled with careful consideration, but let’s not pretend that having sex immediately invalidates her right to be treated with dignity and respect.   Women shouldn’t be denigrated over their sexual choices, especially if men won’t be. 

A definite misstep was his calculation of how much sex Sandra must have been having to spend $3000 in three years of school.  First of all, she said it could cost that much, not that it did for her personally.  Second, we’re talking about the birth control pill. I never thought I’d have to take the time to say this, but you take one pill a day.  The cost is the same no matter how many times you have sex over that three year period.  While reading the comments sections of articles dealing with this issue, I was stunned by how many people didn’t seem to know this.  Third, he said that the taxpayers would be her pimps for paying her to have sex.  Tax dollars wouldn’t cover the cost of contraception.  Insurance companies would.  If anything, insurance premiums would go up, and I've even heard just as many people saying that they'd actually go down due to the decrease in unwanted pregnancies.  I don’t know how it would all work because I’m not an expert at these things, nor am I a fortune teller.  However, if we’re going to have the conversation, I’d at least like to get it right about what's actually at stake.

What Limbaugh did in using this language, besides hurting Fluke’s feelings, is distract us from the issue at hand.  There are a lot of valid questions to be asked, but they’re not really being asked or answered because of the controversy that sprung forth from this.  In an article entitled “Pills For Sluts?: Sixquestions for Rush Limbaugh about sex,promiscuity, and contraception,” William Saletan talks about some of the questions Limbaugh has raised, whether advertently or inadvertently, and should discuss.

1.What’s the problem with contraceptive insurance: socialism or promiscuity?
2. How much sex is too much? 
3. Is contraception a sex enabler?
4. What consequences should a woman face for having sex?
5. Is pregnancy prevention a legitimate medical need?
6. What responsibility should men bear?

These are good questions, and I recommend you read his article to hear what he has to say about them.  There is also, of course, the question that brought this about in the first place.  Does requiring religious institutions to provide insurance coverage that includes contraception infringe on religious liberty.

I’m all for having a good, honest debate about these issues, and I want to know people’s thoughts on these questions.  However, the way that Rush handled it in no way promoted civil discourse.  Of course, that wasn’t his intention.  He’s an entertainer, and as such, we have to expect this from him.  However, he also bears a responsibility in choosing his words.  People turn to him for information as well, so while he’ll undoubtedly put his spin on it according to his personal opinion, as he is free to do, responsibility also indicates he should at least be factual in the information he provides.  He’s doing more than entertaining, after all.

Now, do I believe he should be fired for what he said?  No.  His words may have been irresponsible, or merely poorly chosen, but he is free to say these things whether we like it or not.  That’s the beauty of America.  At the same time, he is representing his employer, so they are free to fire him if they want to.  Just as his advertisers are free to keep walking away if they want.  The advertisers who have walked away understand the power of his words as well as anyone, and they don’t want the beliefs reflected in those words to cast a bad light on them.  Rush and other people like him have to be prepared for this kind of reaction, because that’s the responsibility that comes along with his word choices.

Now, he’s since apologized for his words.  Is he sincere?  Or is he bowing to the pressure?  The fact that he went on a three day long rant before backing down suggests an answer, but who knows?  He may actually mean it.  As an entertainer, he pushes the envelope further because he needs to hold an audience.  Sincere or not, he still has to live with the consequences of what he said.

I only hope this mess settles down so we can answer the important questions that have been raised.  We need debate.  We need solutions.  As much fun as it’s been arguing over whether Rush went to far, let’s focus now on what actually matters.


  1. Thanks for visiting me. Your post is so well written I have to genuflect. It gave me pause to think and that is what good writing is all about. Bravo! The meaning behind the words are very important. Often the answer to your questions come from not what is said but what is left unsaid. You keep referring to Rush as an ENTERTAINER, make no mistake, to an entire conglomerate of people he is delivering the news,factual and unbiased. That means his words are like a double edged sword to many. Once Rush said it many people took it as gospel. The big picture is that he has reduced women's rights back to the pre-dawn caveman mentality. Did you know that the Veteran's Administration pays for Viagra for our Vets? I don't see us having an intelligent discussion or debate over that. I don't hear anyone asking that these men getting free viagra to make a video nor or they being called sluts or worse. It's not what Rush said that is important it is what he's not saying.

  2. I agree. If we're going to have a debate over contraception, the Viagra issue also needs to be debated. It's only fair. If men and women are going to be equals, we can't tolerate the double standards. And I know a few people who see take the things Rush says as gospel. That's one of the reasons I wrote this post.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  3. Agreed. Adam and I actually had a good discussion about that yesterday while we went shopping. Personally, if women's birth control pills had the same accessibility as Tylenol, where you can go into a store and grab it off of the shelf, then sure, I don't see a reason to have the government pay for it. However, it's a prescription medication and I believe it's wrong for the government or insurance companies to discriminate. Sadly people like Rush who say these things have the mentality that just because a woman is on birth control, she's apparently having sex with different partners multiple times a day. At least that's what I get from people like that. They don't understand the medical benefits that women get from birth control, and many times, a woman is on it because her periods are simply unbearable and I've been on birth control several times for that specific reason. Also skin issues like acne can be greatly helped by the pill.

    I agree fully with what Debra stated above. His comments really are shrinking women's rights to an era we should be far evolved from. It's entirely true, and it's sickening that the floodgates have been opened even further about the close-minded assumption that sexually active women are just "sluts".

    Obviously we still have a long way to go in the fight for equal rights as men, apparently. However, I know Rush is learning his lesson the hard way about how powerful his words are. While entitled to have his opinion, his blind name-calling was so middle school and childish.

  4. When I first heard what he said, the first thing I thought about was the language I always heard in middle school. And this was coming from a grown man who is supposed to know better. Geez.

    Jamon used to think that women were already treated equally, but he's starting to realize that isn't true in all cases. Every time I see an effort made to reduce the power of women, I feel outraged. Rush has the right to speak out, yes, and he has a larger forum than I do, but I still have just as much right to speak out against his hideous comments. I intend to continue doing just that.