Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kennedy vs. Limbaugh: Is the Left Being Hypocritical?

So, apparently Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., tweeted the following message last night about one of the Senators of my state: "“Speaking of prostitutes, big oil’s top call girl Sen Inhofe wants to kill fuel economy backed by automakers, small biz, enviros, & consumers.” 

And at least one news source has linked this tweet to Limbaugh's recent verbal assault on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, an attack in which the terms "slut" and "prostitute" figured prominently. As Amy Bingham puts it in an ABC News report, "apparently this nationwide outcry over these 'insulting' words, as Limbaugh himself called them, was not enough to prevent another syndicated talk radio host, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., from slinging the very same insult." 

This way of putting the point gestures towards a kind of challenge, even if it doesn't state the challenge outright. But the challenge is hovering out there, and so it needs to be considered. Let me start by stating the challenge outright: Shouldn't the country get as worked up about Kennedy's tweet as they did about Limbaugh's comments? Is the political left, which has led the charge against Limbaugh, being hypocritical if it doesn't take as strong a stand against a member of the political left's most iconic families as it took against one of the political right's most iconic personalities?

Having just finished writing a post on the Limbaugh case in which I describe Limbaugh's attacks on Fluke as "vicious" in Aristotle's sense, the challenge might well be directed towards me (a "political progressive" and hence someone more likely to be sympathetic to Kennedy's politics than to Limbaugh's):  Am I going to take as strong a stand against Kennedy as I took against Limbaugh?

No. No I'm not.

Because to do so would be to trivialize the severity of what Limbaugh did.

This is not a case of hypocrisy, because the two cases have virtually nothing in common. It's true that both Kennedy and Limbaugh used the term "prostitute." And I'm not saying I think it was a good idea for Kennedy to use this term, or that it was the sort of thing that contributes to civil political dialogue. In fact, I'm inclined to say that you shouldn't label your political opponents "call girls" no matter how metaphorical the label is meant to be. But that said, there are so many differences between the two cases that we would be minimizing the gravity of Limbaugh's actions were we to treat Kennedy's tweet as even in the same ballpark.

First, Limbaugh's on-air rants about  Fluke's sex life verged on obsessive. He elaborated in detail on the supposed enormity of her sex life. He called her a slut and a prostitute multiple times. This is much bigger than a single tweet. For purposes of comparison, consider sexual harassment law. A single questionable comment does not create a "hostile or offensive work environment." But a pattern of sexual comments does. And a single incident can be a case of "hostile environment" sexual harassment if it is sufficiently severe. One glib tweet that invokes the prostitute label wouldn't rise to the level of sexual harassment even if (as is not the case here) the label were meant in sexual terms rather than as a metaphor for being a political sell-out. But something like Limbaugh's sexual rants, targeting Fluke over consecutive days, would clearly constitute sexual harassment if it had occurred in the workplace.

Second, when Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute, it was very literal: He slapped these labels on her because of her supposed sex life and her supposed desire (expressed by wanting her insurance plan to cover contraception) to be paid to have lots of sex. In short, Limbaugh was fixated on sexualizing a human being as a means of ridiculing, humiliating, and dismissing her. This is the service to which the term "slut" was being put, with all its explicit sexual meaning intact. Kennedy, by contrast, invoked the prostitute label as a metaphorical way to accuse a man of selling his political services to the oil industry. The term was not intended to make any claims about Inhofe's sex life. It was not meant to sexually objectify him. It was not meant to reduce him to a sex object. It was meant as a provocative (and admittedly questionable) way to challenge the integrity of Inhofe's political career.

Third, Limbaugh's attack on Fluke was part of a broader pattern of misogynistic abuse of women and consistent dismissal of women's concerns about social justice and equality (epitomized in his famed "feminazi" label). The abuse of Fluke was a particularly well-publicized example of deeply entrenched vicious habits of indecency towards women. What makes Limbaugh's behavior vicious is precisely this fact: it comes out of a deeply-seated character flaw in which intellectual honesty has been systematically subordinated to unconstrained impulses. Is Kennedy's tweet a similar expression of a deep-seated moral indecency? Well, I don't know enough about Kennedy's life and career to say for sure, but I have been to environmental conferences where he was the keynote speaker, and his rhetoric at those events was thoughtful, engaging, and guided by careful reasoning. There was no abusive language. No verbal assaults on individuals. From what I've seen of Limbaugh, his use of the "slut" label was completely characteristic. Kennedy's tweet, by contrast, is uncharacteristic.

Fourth, the target of Kennedy's jibe--Sen. Inhofe--is a man. And this matters a lot. It matters for the sake of understanding what kind of effect, and what kind of meaning, the invocation of the term is going to have. Compare the difference between a white man and a black man being called by the racist "n-word." The white man is likely to scratch his head in puzzlement, shrug, and go on with his day. But if the target is black, the word carries all the weight of a history of dehumanization (at least if the person delivering it is white and so a member of the group that was the historic source of that dehumanization).

Terms like "slut" have a long history of playing a central role in the misogynistic marginalization of women. It is women, not men, who were historically treated as the sexual property of men. It was women, not men, who didn't get the vote in the US until well into the 20th century. It is women, not men, who are the primary targets of rape and sexual assault. It is women, not men, who are the main victims of domestic violence.

This context is utterly crucial. When a man calls a woman a slut or a whore, he invokes this entire legacy of patriarchal oppression. He is feeding into and reinforcing a cultural pattern that has historically disempowered women, making them vulnerable to male exploitation and dependent on the good will of the men in their lives.

More insidiously, in a culture where it is women who are the primary victims of rape, Limbaugh's style of targeted rhetoric evokes rape in a way that can only be experienced by its target as a kind of deep violation: labeling a specific woman in sexual terms, making her sexuality a matter of public attention (a way of symbolically stripping her and presenting her naked before his leering audience), and then demanding that she perform sexually for everyone (specifically that she film and post sexual videos of herself online for all to see). I will say it again: What Limbaugh did to Fluke was a violation, and a sexual one.

Kennedy wasn't sexually violating Senator Inhofe. He may have used the word "prostitute," but it simply doesn't have the insidious meaning when used metaphorically to describe the political career of a powerful male politician that it has when it's used to dismiss the views of a female student by sexually objectifying her.

Had Kennedy used the very same metaphor to label a female politician, it would in my judgment have been a much more serious thing. The term would have resonated with a history of oppression in a way that, even had Kennedy not intended it to do so, would have invested the term with a sexually oppressive meaning. As it is, however, likening what Kennedy tweeted to what Limbaugh did is deeply inappropriate, because it powerfully diminishes the gravity of the latter.


  1. Very insightful, but perhaps you should have waited until today to post it? It would have been more symbolic.

  2. Gee, it took me till about a third of the way down this post to even understand what this hypocrisy you were referring to was. Maybe I'm thick, but it really didn't initially occur to me that someone could accuse the 'call girl' tweet of having the same sentiment, sexism, or viciousness as Limbaugh's rant.

    Surely there's a clear and apparent *anti-misogynistic* message implied in Kennedy's tweet: "you wanna talk about prostituting yourself? You wanna talk about selling out your dignity for cash? Then forget about trivialities like whether some woman had sex with some guy, let's talk about the big fish like Inhofe, who do it on such a scale that it negatively affects us all."

  3. Volnaiksra--Excellent point. Kennedy might be taken to be making a subversive use of the "prostitute" label--arguing that what really warrants the kind of negative judgment and stigma associated with the term isn't a woman having sex with a man for money but a politician selling out his constituency for money.

    And, as should be clear, I don't for a minute think there's any hypocrisy in treating the cases very differently.

  4. And there are now numerous people (such as this one; or check out all the comments on this post) who are explicitly calling progressives hypocrites for failing to take as strong a stand against Kennedy's metaphorical use of the "prostitute" label to criticize a male politician as they took against Limbaugh's obsessive attempt to sexually humiliate and objectify Sadra Fluke. It's hard for me to fathom the failure to discern how radically different these two situations are.

    This isn't a matter of nuance. If I were at a party and I came across a man who had a young woman cornered and, with a leering crowd of onlookers, was taking delight in calling her a whore and demanding that she strip and show them what she's got, I'd likely rush in to stop what I'd take to be a sexual assault in progress, maybe even call the police. If I were at the same party and overheard a conversation in which one man said to a suited businessman, "What you're doing amounts to prostitution," I might want to chide the person for his inflammatory word choice.

  5. Gee, these people who are demanding complete parity in how the use of the word "prostitute" is treated by Limbaugh's opponents must really be serious about moral equality. Needless to say, they would also demand the same sort of complete parity in how Limbaugh treats health care issues in the first place, right?

    Because it strikes me that the comment that started it all: 'Fluke wants the taxpayer to pay her to have sex' should only be the beginning. If this sentiment of Limbaugh is to remain credible on its own terms, then he should apply the same sort of thinking to other areas of health care.

    Surely they should pressure Limbaugh to publicly decry health insurance covering heart disease treatment, because it "pays people to be gluttons", and insurance that covers the mending of a broken leg after a skiing accident, because it "pays people to be reckless idiots", or one that provides antibiotics for infectious diseases, because it "pays for people to be irresponsible with their own personal hygiene".

    Oh, but wait, calling people those things just plain isn't as much fun as calling someone a slut.