There’s a new anti-Limbaugh petition, calling for advertisers who temporalily dropped their ads from Rush Limbaugh’s show to make that drop permanent. I haven’t signed it.
At what point does activism become bullying? That the question I’m pondering. This started when Limbaugh made some asshole misogynistic comments on his show – standard behavior for him. It was terrible and lots of people spoke out about it. They called on Republicans to repudiate the remarks. They signed petitions to that effect. This was all well and good.
Then they called for Limbaugh’s advertisers to pull out of his show. Many did. But already I found this to be a bit of a stretch – as if we were holding the advertisers morally responsible for Limbaugh’s words. Limbaugh is the one who’s being a terrible person; the advertisers are just marketing their products to their target demographic.
Admittedly, I begin to see the point of moralizing the advertising when I consider that advertising brings money, and thus support, to Limbaugh’s show. So perhaps the advertisers should feel bad about this. Perhaps they should want to withdraw their support.
But here’s the thing – what if they don’t? It seems to me you can only go so far in telling someone (or a group of people) that they “should feel bad” about something. You can only go so far when it comes to dictating someone else’s conscience for them. The purpose of these petitions is essentially to shame the advertisers into leaving the show. Is that really the right answer? I’m not convinced.
And there’s one more issue at stake here. I get the feeling from the tone of discourse about Limbaugh that a lot of people would be happy to see his show go off the air. I would, too – but only if that was because people stopped listening to it. I don’t want to see the show forced off the air. Limbaugh has a right to say appalling things, and we have a right to declaim him for it. But silencing someone is bullying. To force a show off the air is to act as if we have something to fear from words, and bad ideas, and insults. We don’t. Every time someone says something that is wrong, that provides us with an excellent opportunity to say what is right. To quote Johann Hari in his excellent piece on free speech:
The solution to the problems of free speech – that sometimes people will say terrible things – is always and irreducibly more free speech. If you don’t like what a person says, argue back. Make a better case. Persuade people. The best way to discredit a bad argument is to let people hear it.
So I say, let Limbaugh keep talking. He isn’t a threat – he just helps us make our case.
I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.