When conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” last week for her Congressional testimony about birth control, it caused a national uproar that continues to rage.
Limbaugh has since (however reluctantly and insincerely) apologized, but a closer look at his comments reveals that the controversy has implications for the skeptical movement.
The issue is less what Limbaugh said than how he said it-his approach, tone, and choice of words. He could simply have disagreed with Fluke, calmly and rationally explaining why he believed her evidence or arguments were wrong. Instead, he wanted to be funny; he wanted to be controversial and get attention. He’d made a name for himself as an outspoken commentator, and had to live up to that image.
Limbaugh’s words were not merely insults (though one could argue that in an enlightened world slut and prostitute should not be insults but instead a sexually liberated woman’s prerogative). As Fluke said in an interview on The View, “I tried to see this for what it is, and I believe that what it is, is an attempt to silence me, to silence the millions of women and the men who support them who have been speaking out about this issue.” This is indeed the intended effect of insults: to put others down, to dismiss and silence them.
Limbaugh’s approach is all too common in today’s world. It’s easy to see why: it’s cheap, easy, and superficial. It’s often the case that outrage and insults substitute for truth and accuracy; it’s easier to call someone stupid or a slut than it is to engage them respectfully. It’s easier to have knee-jerk, facepalming reactions of manufactured apoplectic outrage than it is to thoughtfully address another’s opinion or evidence.
Bullies like Limbaugh aren’t going away any time soon; there’s always an audience for demagoguery, insult and shock jock humor. People like Limbaugh have legions of loyal fans eager to jump on the bandwagon and parrot his claims and opinions without having to think for themselves.
When President Obama was asked why he contacted Sandra Fluke to talk about the issue, he replied with characteristic wisdom and thoughtfulness: “I thought about [my daughters] Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way, and I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they’re being good citizens.” As a writer on Jezebel noted, it was “a teachable moment if there ever was one.”
As Deborah Tannen discusses in her excellent book The Argument Culture, attempting to mock, ridicule, and silence others is exactly the opposite of trying to engage in reasoned debate and discussion. It is dismissive and arrogant; as Phil Plait famously put it, “Don’t be a dick.”
Of course, Phil wasn’t the first to point this problem out; it’s long been a basic tenet of skepticism and rational inquiry. In every issue of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer quotes Baruch Spinoza: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” CSICOP co-founder Ray Hyman’s guide “Proper Criticism” (which has been reprinted several times in Skeptical Inquirer magazine and stands as the publication’s official guide to proper skeptical discourse) wrote, “We should…convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner. We should avoid using loaded and prejudicial words in our criticisms.”
It seems clear to most skeptics that ridicule, insults, and ad hominem attacks are wrong and counter-productive. Given the widespread condemnation of Limbaugh’s words (not only among Democrats and feminists but among the general public), you would think that there would be a vast and deep gulf between the sort of vile tone and language Limbaugh represents and skeptics.
That is, unfortunately, not the case, as Phil, myself, and many others have pointed out. It is alarming and concerning when skeptics-women and men who presumably value freedom of speech, free inquiry, and respectful discourse-use the same tactics and fallacies that Rush Limbaugh routinely employs.
The irony is that this comes at a time when questions have been raised about how welcoming organized skepticism is-to women, minorities, theists, and others. Are skeptics seen as tolerant and welcoming to people with different ideas and points of view? Or are skeptics seen as dismissive, insulting, and eager to mock and silence diverse opinions? What is best for the community in the long term?
It’s not just about the insults; anyone can lose their temper now and then, or call people insulting names; Penn and Teller (well, strictly speaking, Penn) do it all the time on the hit skeptical show Bullshit! But when the ridicule and insults become routine and mean-spirited-and when, as Sandra Fluke insightfully noted-the real objective is to silence those who have different opinions, there’s a legitimate problem. It’s not about those who are insulted being too sensitive; it’s about respecting other people even if we disagree with them.
Those who make their names with controversy and insult rarely feel they are doing anything wrong; they believe they’re just expressing their righteous indignation at those who aren’t smart enough to see things their way. Any insults to (or silencing of) others, or corrosion of polite discourse, is easily justified in service of a greater good.
Of course, freedom of speech goes both ways. No one is trying to silence or censor Rush Limbaugh; his right to call Sandra Fluke a slut is protected by the First Amendment. Similarly, skeptics who regularly trade in insult and inflammatory demagoguery have every right to do so.
Many skeptics joined the chorus of outrage at Limbaugh’s comments, yet have been conspicuously silent about similar (albeit not as extreme) behavior within the skeptical community. Each to his or her own. But the next time we express dismay at legitimate discussions that quickly devolve into bitter flame wars; or the next time we shake our heads at negative, political advertising that ignores the real issues in favor of fearmongering and mud-slinging; or the next time we wonder why the social and political environments have become so toxic, vitriolic, and polarizing, we can see how these seeds are sown. For some of us, the cause will be the people around us; for others the cause will be in the mirror.