Daum: The line Limbaugh crossed

Rush Limbaugh, seen here on Jan. 27, 2010, called law school student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" after she testified to Congress on Feb. 23. She argued that the insurance she pays for at Georgetown should cover prescription contraception for women.
(Brian Jones / AP Photo)
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Last week, in a column about Rush Limbaugh’s verbal attacks on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, I mentioned that there were those on the left who are also guilty of using crude language against women. For example, I wrote, Bill Maher has said things about Sarah Palin that are “wholly unacceptable.” A number of readers, some Limbaugh fans and some not, found that assessment wholly unacceptable too.

They were right. I didn’t say enough. So even as the Fluke flap gets absorbed into larger questions — like whether President Obama’s “super PAC” should return Maher’s recent $1-million contribution and just how much damage the GOP has sustained by threatening to erode the long-standing rights of the crucial female voting bloc — I’m going to dig deeper, past the platitudes, to figure out how we decide what’s acceptable and what’s not.

First, Maher. In 2008, during a live performance in a venue that holds 2,300 people, he called Palin a word I can barely allude to in this space. A week or so earlier he’d called her an only slightly less offensive word on his HBO show “Real Time,” whose viewership is estimated at 1 million. The remarks were crass and juvenile, not to mention totally unnecessary, given how many legitimate, nonsexist ways there are to suggest that Palin isn’t the most substantive player on the political scene.

They were not, however, on the same low level of Limbaugh’s remarks about Fluke. Maher said a few dirty, misogynist words to a relatively small audience. Limbaugh spent five days pushing an outrageous and utterly false narrative about female birth control use being tantamount to promiscuity and sex for hire. Moreover, he was spewing to 20 million listeners (by his count) who are well known to take him far more literally than most people take Maher.

Meanwhile, let’s not allow history to be rewritten. Contrary to what conservatives have been suggesting, many liberal groups condemned Maher over the Palin remarks, not least the National Organization for Women, which issued a statement telling Maher (and others) to “cut the crap” when it comes to “gender-associated slurs.”

But there wasn’t a universal, sustained outcry against Maher. And understanding why requires cutting yet more crap and making an important admission: A lot of the usual “gender-associated slurs” lost a good bit of their sting long ago — when women started using them on each other, to be exact.

Listen in on a conversation among young women: You’re likely to hear name-calling that makes Limbaugh and Maher sound like rank amateurs. Better yet, tune in to the latest season of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” where the word “slut” is thrown around like it’s a badge of honor.

For some, this represents a way to strip sexist language of its power. For others, it’s plain old lazy, unbecoming language, not to mention the very thing that second-wave feminists fought hard to remove from the public discourse. Whatever your tolerance for girl-on-girl effrontery, it’s clear that the bar for what’s offensive, particularly where mere words are concerned, is at an all-time high.

Limbaugh managed to clear that bar and then some. What a lot of people missed, including liberals whose focus on the word “slut” opened the door for conservatives to fight back by invoking Maher’s epithets, is that it wasn’t Limbaugh’s language that was so offensive, it was his logic.

If Limbaugh had called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” and then continued on his merry way with a generic rant about “Obamacare,” the controversy would have followed the usual Rush pattern: a day or two of indignation, then yesterday’s news. But this time, he didn’t just insult a particular group. He insulted human logic itself. He didn’t just traffic in hyperbole; he dressed up fiction as news commentary and assumed his listeners would swallow it out of sheer habit.

And it’s that assumption, more than the nasty words, that got him in so much trouble. By not crediting his listeners with the ability to discern valid argument from mind-blowing lies, he sent a message that they were less than rational beings.

Is that wholly unacceptable? Well, the 100 or so advertisers who’ve deserted him seem to think so. And considering that so many of his competitors are pretty boorish themselves — while having much lower ratings — I’d also say that’s wholly impressive.