The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Case of Limbaugh and the Serious Case

There have been a handful of commenters claiming that pressuring Rush Limbaugh's sponsors to stop advertising with him violates not the legal strictures of the First Amendment, but the culture of free speech, by not responding with counter speech, but with economic duress. Now, this is an argument I can see some reason in, in the abstract--you aren't winning the debate, it goes, by reason, but rather by communicating your disapproval of the idea and threatening loss of revenue on those who pay to associate themselves with the speaker. It's certainly been effective in the case of Limbaugh, who is down nearly 100 sponsors.

But is it fair play? Does it cut, rather than untie the Gordian knot? Does it refute Limbaugh, or leave him unrefuted, merely punished?

And here we come to a distinction drawn by C.P. Snow in his response to a particularly vitriolic and personal attack on him by literary critic F.R. Leavis:
If I enter into discussion on any topic, intellectual, moral, practical, or whatever combination you like, it matters very little what I feel for my opponent, or what he feels for me. But I am entitled to require--or if I am not so entitled then I have to beg to be excused--that he and I will observe some basic and simple rules. If he refers to words that I have said or written, he will quote them accurately. He will not attribute to me attitudes and opinions which I do not hold, and if he makes any such attributions, he will check them against the documentary evidence. He will be careful when referring to incidents in my biography, and he will be scrupulous about getting his facts right. Naturally, I have a duty to obey the same rules in return. Nothing could be much more prosaic or straightforward; but without these ground-rules, any kind of serious human exchange becomes impossible.
--C.P. Snow, "The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case," in Snow, Public Affairs (1971) at 81.

This cuts to the heart of why counterspeech in the purest, most deliberative sense is ineffective with respect to Rush Limbaugh. By boldly, and repeatedly slandering Ms Fluke over a three day period on the subject of (1) what her testimony was about (answer: the scope of coverage for which she pays) ; (2) the reasons she advanced for including contraception within the mandate (primarily, the harm suffered by some of her fellow students who needed contraceptive drugs for other medical reasons; and (3) the very nature of contraception itself (the required dosage does not increase with the amount of sex the woman has), Limbaugh inflicted a significant personal cost on her (watch his comments here).

As Snow notes, counterspeech is completely ineffective here; you spend all your time seeking to correct the false factual statements, and never get to the main issues. Indeed, because you are defending Sandra Fluke, who was not testifying about wanting to use birth control to limit the risks posed by for sexual intercourse, you may be seen as implicitly accepting Limbaugh's unspoken premise that such in a somehow illegitimate use of the drug, and an abuse of the insurance In other words, you may be seen as conceding the very issue up for the debate, which Limbaugh's barrage of lies has prevented being addressed. So reasoned debate is just not possible.

Also, why did Limabugh single out for shaming and degrading this law student, if not to silence other women who agree with her? Professor Bonnie J. Morris writes that "an attack on any young woman’s reputation feels like a personal attack on all women who are, in this bizarre historical moment, once again being forced to stand before the judgment of Great Men." In the context of Limbaugh's repetitive, irrelevant and unprovoked attack, I couldn't agree more--it's an effort to cow women into silence.

Limbaugh does not respect the basic rules of Madisonian, Millian debate, preferring those of the playground. How do you reply to a bully? You take away his power. Isolate him. Let his "friends" (advertisers) know that you won't play with them if he's part of the package. And when Limbaugh cries "Foul!" don't feel a whit of sympathy for him; he chose the forum and the rules.

1 comment:

DorianTB said...

Well-said indeed, good sir, especially your playground analogy!