Last March, while driving, I heard Rush Limbaugh attack law student and private citizen Sandra Fluke on radio.
I never listened to Limbaugh before. I'd heard bits and pieces of his blathering here and there over the years, and I assumed he was just a blowhard "talk radio" jerk, in the genre of "talk radio" jerk "infotainment." I didn't like it, but I also didn't think it really mattered beyond the bunch of people who listened because they agreed with his politics, or enjoyed being outraged.
I thought it was harmless. Nasty. Disgusting. But harmless.
And not worth worrying about.
But listening to Limbaugh rail against Sandra Fluke, I realized that was NOT what was going on at all.
Limbaugh is, in my opinion, a bully. His MO seems to be to attack, belittle, and mock rather than to make a thoughtful case. He uses overblown outrage and adolescent locker-room humor to make his bullying and racist and sexist slurs acceptable. He operates on the principle that if it's "funny," punny, extreme, absurd or said in a funny voice, then it's okay to make a rape joke or a racist comment or mercilessly insult his target du jour.
Ad hominem. Distraction. Stream-of-consciousness derision coming at you like a 40-car pile-up. This is Limbaugh's style. I guess this is what some people find entertaining. I don't get it.
"Can you imagine if you're her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she's having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope." Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 2/29/12Is there a real argument to make about who pays for birth control? I think so. But Limbaugh is not interested in (and, I suspect, or capable of) dissecting an issue thoughtfully. What he appears to enjoys doing and does with spectacular regularity, to judge from his transcripts, is belittle folks for being women, people of color, or children, for having a chronic disease, being gay, transgendered, vegetarians, exercisers, a First Lady or Secretary of State, college-educated, artists or writers, members of the media, immigrants, teachers, low-income, professional basketball players, college professors, Native Americans, Europeans, or members of any other groups he has an issue with.
"What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid for sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute." Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 2/29/12, via Media MattersIn short, Limbaugh is a bully. A cowardly, nasty and often incoherent and blubbering bully. Bullies deploy humor (of a sort) to connect with their audience and not appear so offensive. Hate coated with the glaze of humor is the bully's favorite weapon. Humor hides the seriousness of the attack and secures the listener's compliance and support.
"It makes her a slut, right?"
You have to agree, right Snerdly?—because dude, did he just say slut on the radio? Bullies need their audience. You can't be a bully without an audience. Audiences are the source of the bully's power.
"So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here's the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch." Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 3/1/12, via Media MattersThe psychological phenomenon know as the "bystander effect" describes what I think is happening here. People have put up with Limbaugh and ilk for so long because he has "20 million listeners" (no proof, though) and claims to be the self-appointed head of the GOP ("I breastfeed them.") The more he presents himself as king of "talk radio," the more he lathers himself in totally artificial "EIB" prestige, the more he compliments and pets his listeners and bestows on them that special moniker, "Dittoheads,"—complete with merchandising, tea and special discounts codes, the more they are enthralled.
Hate radio creates the illusion that everyone accepts the bully. Pre-screened callers fawn. Paid callers, too. The FCC looks the other way. And reputable brands even pay for advertising on his show, offering an gauzy blanket of legitimacy to the pathological bullying. She's a slut, right?
"So, if we're gonna sit here, and if we're gonna have a part in this, then we want something in return, Ms. Fluke: And that would be the videos of all this sex posted online so we can see what we are getting for our money." Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 3/1/12,Don't be fooled. This brand of "talk radio" is not talk at all. It's hate radio and we should start calling it what it is. It's bully talk. The simple goal of hate radio is to make this brand of talk legitimate, acceptable, and normalized.
Bullies like Limbaugh engage in humiliating and insulting others to grab at status. The bully needs power and adoration to feed the hungry baby of his ego. The more a bully can belittle, the larger the bully appears to his bystanders. Bullying is what baboons do, not decent human beings.
"I'll happily buy her all the aspirin she wants. ... We would happily buy Sandra Fluke all the aspirin she wants. What could that possibly cost? ... I'm offering a compromise today. I will buy all of the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want." Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 3/1/12, via Media MattersHate radio is bullying and bullying is corrosive of decency. Hate radio contributes to divisiveness, and it creates a seemingly acceptable public arena for calling women "sluts," African-Americans "thugs" and "gangsters," and Mexicans "lazy" and "stupid." But it's not acceptable. At all. Ever.
If the attacks Limbaugh dishes out regularly on talk radio were to take place in your workplace or school, there would likely be serious consequences. Try calling your African American boss "uppity" the way Limbaugh does First Lady Michelle Obama. Call your office assistant a Sex-ratary and see where that gets you. Or refer to your child's teacher as a "slut" and suggest she post videos of herself having sex online. Limbaugh bullying is especially cowardly because he does it from the protected fortress of his broadcast studio.
Bullying affects bystanders as well as victims. Studies suggest that there are psychological and physiological effects associated with being a bystander to bullying. Being a compliant bystander contributes to a sense of social mistrust and disconnection, and is associated with higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.
"Were these kinds of women around when I was in school?....Oh, oh, no, no, no. I didn't know any Flukes. No. Well, wait. I take it back. Yes. Every school had a couple of 'em. You know, for every 500 students, every school had a couple of these. Now they're everywhere. That's what you're getting at, right? And the two at your school, I mean even with birth control, you wouldn't go there. That's the big difference. I mean there were women that you might think you could get a disease, but you didn't care." Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 3/1/12, via RushLimbaugh.comAs a radio listener, you can't easily see or observe your fellow listeners' reactions to hate radio bullying. But that's changing. People ARE reacting to this bullying and many have stopped being bystanders.
Social media have given us the tools to speak up and be heard. We can tweet, blog, use Facebook, Pinterest, email and call. We can inform sponsors and ask them to choose between bankrolling hate or standing up for decency and not be bystanders or enablers. We can work together and make our voices and reactions heard over the hate-fueled din of Limbaugh.
It's time. Time to end hate radio. Time to stop being silent but uncomfortable bystanders. It's time to speak out against Limbaugh's bullying and hate.
Hate like this is not normal, or acceptable or legitimate. Hate like this sucks. Limbaugh's hate radio hate is not talk at all—it's the worst kind of bullying cowardly hate.
It's "hate radio." It's bullying. Let's start by calling it what it is.
And it's time for it to end.