The uproar generated by Rush Limbaugh repeatedly referring to Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke as a ‘slut’ and a ‘prostitute’ on his widely listened to radio program is showing little sign of dying down. Apparently many advertisers have pulled their support from his show, though this may be just a temporary setback for him. As long as he continues to command a large audience, advertisers will likely slowly come back once the furor dies down.
But the whole issue started me thinking about this whole business of what constitutes insulting language and it is going to be the topic of an occasional series that looks at how we deal with the heated language that is common in politics and on the internet.
This issue of what constitutes an insult is a tricky one, especially for those who are more broad-minded since the range of things that are perceived as insults is inversely proportional to how narrow-minded one is.
Take for example the word ‘slut’, which is used to refer to a sexually promiscuous woman, and even sometimes extended to any woman who engages in pre-marital sex or sex outside of marriage. Why is this an insult? What business is it of anyone else what the sexual practices of others are? If someone wants to have sex with multiple partners, why should anyone else care? It becomes an insult only if we think that sex is dirty and that someone who indulges in it with more than one person or outside of wedlock is somehow morally depraved, even though there is no rational basis for that assumption.
The word ‘prostitute’ suffers from the same problem. It becomes an insult only to those who think that exchanging sex for money is morally wrong. If you think that it is simply another form of commerce in which people sell their services for money, as we all do in one form or another, then it ceases to be an insult and becomes simply the name of an occupation or vocation. I am not here interested in whether going into prostitution is a good career choice. Something can be not seen as immoral and still not be good for the person indulging in it. The life of a prostitute can be awful, especially in those societies where it is illegal and thus they do not have the protection of the law and are often at the mercy of unscrupulous and violent people.
So when Limbaugh attacked Fluke using the words slut and prostitute, this puts broad-minded people in somewhat of a quandary. When an overbearing and unpleasant bully attacks someone who was merely giving her views on an important issue to members of Congress, the natural instinct of all fair-minded people is to come to her defense.
But what exactly are we defending her from? If there is nothing objectionable to the acts that are associated with those words, then the words become merely descriptive with no negative connotations, putting them on the same level as her being described as a student or young, neither of which would be viewed as insults. In other words, we could have risen, not to the defense of Fluke the person but to the defense of the words slut and prostitute, seeking to raise them out of the disrepute that society has consigned them to. In other words, we could say that no insult had occurred and the offense that Limbaugh committed was trying to smear the words slut and prostitute with negative connotations where none should exist.
But this is not what the legions who rose to defend Fluke were doing. They seemed to be accepting that the words were insulting and defending the accuracy of the terms as applied to Fluke. In other words, they seemed to be saying that the words slut and prostitute were inaccurate in that there was no evidence that Fluke was promiscuous or exchanged sex for money. But there is surely more to the reaction than accuracy because Limbaugh also inaccurately referred to her by the old-fashioned word ‘co-ed’, a term that usually is used to describe a female undergraduate, while she was in fact a law student. There was no outcry about that.
Limbaugh clearly meant those words to be insulting, taking advantage of the current view of society that being a slut or a prostitute is disreputable, and there was an understandable urge to defend Fluke the person, even if we thought the words themselves were not insulting. So clearly the angry response was because Limbaugh used the words as insults and we let him be the determiner of what words can be used as such.
This illustrates a recurring pattern when it comes to insulting language. It tends to be the speaker of the words who gets to decide if the word is insulting or not and it is hard not to respond accordingly.