The way we respond to Rush Limbaugh

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.

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5 Comments

Filed under Free Speech, Human Rights

5 responses to “The way we respond to Rush Limbaugh

  1. You are correct about free speech. The advertisers, however, are not vitcims as you make them out to be. Let’s say I shop at Ace Hardware or might purchase a GM product. I am the reason that company makes money. If I *choose* to support companies who I think are contributing to the good of our community, I am doing GM and Ace Hardware a *favor* by telling them why I won’t buy their product anymore, as opposed to an all-out boycott. This is a free market and that means the consumer gets to choose.

    You should also be aware that the Southern Law Poverty Center has now classified many “Men’s empowerment” organizations as hate groups because of their frequent useage of the words Slut, Whore and suggestions of women to show themselves on sex tapes. I agree that speech should be “free”, but so should racial slurs. Take from that what you will.

  2. “am” contributing. Sorry. ;)

    • Amelie, thanks for your comment.

      Yes, I understand that financially supporting a company (by buying its products, or whatever) also indirectly supports the things that that company is doing. I have no problem with boycotting a company’s products based on that, or with letting the company know how you feel.

      Why, then, do I take issue with this petition? To begin with, this petition is not just “letting these companies know how we feel.” It is a command, essentially, do remove their ads permanently. Of course, the petitions directed at Komen for the Cure (re: the Planned Parenthood issue) were commands, as well – to reinstate Komen’s funding of PP. And I did sign those. So I’m not being consistent! I think ultimately I am just not convinced of a strong causal connection between “Advertising on Limbaugh’s show” and “Contributing to the subjugation of American women.” With PP, the problem was obvious. PP does a lot of good work, and they relied on money from Komen, which they would no longer be getting. That is clear enough. With the Limbaugh issue, the connection is not so clear for me. It may just be my ignorance, but in any case, I think this is why I take issue with this petition.

      • I don’t think you’re wrong, per se. As an example though imagine I’m your employer, and I “command” that you bring me coffee. Well, that is real because I can fire you if you refuse. Now let’s say you’re Rite Aid and as your consumer I insist you drop Limbaugh. In that case it’s sort of a fake command because sure I’m going to boycott you at least until I’m on the road and need cold medicine or tampons or I’ve forgotten which 12 companies I’ve pledged to not buy from with 200 million other customers who will make my boycott irrelevant anyway.

        You don’t seem too outraged by Limbaugh’s comments (which is perfectly fine, it’s an individual choice) so my question would be, let’s say you were outraged by *something* Limbaugh said, to the point where you strongly felt as though something had to be done. What specific, tangible action do you think would be effective in a case like that?

      • Hmm… good question. In some cases I would write to the person, to tell them how I feel. Though that’s something I would do to a politician more than anyone else. If I didn’t contact the person directly, I might sign a petition deploring their statements, and perhaps asserting that they should recant and apologize. I did as much with Limbaugh – I just did not go so far as to sign the latest petition regarding making advertisement drops permanent.

        But all of this amounts to a battle of rhetoric and ideas, doesn’t it? The point in speaking out against Limbaugh would be to counter his vicious falsehoods with truth. The point would not be to silence him. Like I said in my post, much as I would like to see him off the air, I wouldn’t want to force him off. I don’t think anything he could say would make me change my stance on that. No matter how outraged I was at what the man said, the solution would always be to say the truth better.

        And while a company that continued to advertise on Limbaugh’s show may lose some of my respect, and I may choose to tell the company as much, or boycott their products, I don’t think I would want to command that the company stop advertising on his show. There’s a difference between arguing that someone is not respectable, and commanding that a company stop respecting someone.

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