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.
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.