Equivalence? In Your Dreams …

According to most of the Right and also the perpetually clueless Stanley Fish (note to Protein Wisdom: If Fish is a “progressive,” I’m Pat Robertson. And Jesus.), this …

… is equivalent to this …

For those of you who are not able to watch the videos, in the first Bill Maher tells a joke about Sarah Palin — that when she heard about last year’s disaster in Japan, she demanded that we invade Tsunami. And then he introduced the next joke with “speaking of dumb tw*ts….” The second video shows highlights from Rush Limbaugh’s three-day rant against Sandra Fluke. (I realize that Maher has said other naughty things about Palin beside this, but again, the Rush video only shows some of what he said about Fluke.)

To say these are equivalent is a bit like saying an average-size rain puddle is equivalent to Lake Superior. And I’m not defending Maher. As I wrote a few days ago, using gender insults to ridicule a particular woman puts down all women in the same way that calling one black person a N—– puts down all African Americans.

But the fact is that if Rush had only said that Sandra Fluke was a “dumb tw*t it probably would have gone unnoticed. Instead, Rush went on, and on, and on, for three freaking days.

But beyond quantity of verbiage, we might also consider another measure of difference between these two “examples.”

What was the effect? Did Maher’s line have any measurable effect on public opinion or the quality of serious political discourse? Comedians make fun of politicians all the time, and the public is free to either be amused or offended. But I doubt that what Maher said changed anyone’s opinion about Palin one way or another.

On the other hand, Limbaugh flat-out lied about Fluke’s testimony for three days (and no doubt beyond), and judging by comments on rightie sites, in large part thanks to Limbaugh a big chunk of the American public actually believes that Sandra Fluke demanded that taxpayers pay for her contraceptives so she could have more sex. And no amount of linking to or explaining Fluke’s actual testimony can change their minds. In other words, Rush utterly poisoned any discussion we might have had on the issue of private insurance mandates and contraception.

Fish’s argument appears to be that we are supposed to see these two as equivalent because it’s the fair thing to do —

These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment — is what has been said good and true? — to a requirement of procedural reciprocity — you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for. Basically this is the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.

So if you come down hard on Limbaugh because he has crossed a line, you must come down hard on Schultz and Maher because they have crossed the same line; and you should do this despite the fact that in general — that is, on all the important issues — you think Schultz and Maher are right and Limbaugh is horribly and maliciously wrong.

However, I don’t think Schultz and Maher were “right.” But Ed Schultz was taken off the air for a week because of his use of a sexual insult, and I think that was appropriate. The price was paid. The scales were balanced in his case. He probably won’t do that ever again.

I don’t think Maher received any punishment for the “dumb tw*t” remark, but once again, if that is all Limbaugh had done, those of us who never listen to Limbaugh probably wouldn’t have noticed, or cared.

Fish continues,

The idea is that in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere in which you can have and vent your prejudices) you should not privilege your own views to the extent that they justify treating those with opposing views unequally and unfairly. (Fairness is the great liberal virtue.) This idea is concisely captured by the philosopher Thomas Nagel when he says that in political life we should regard our most cherished beliefs, “whether moral or religious … simply as someone’s beliefs rather than as truths.” In short, back away from or relax your strongest convictions about what is right and wrong and act in a manner that grants legitimacy, at least of a formal kind, to the convictions of others, even of others you despise.

The difference between Maher and Limbaugh is the difference between insult and slander. Maher insulted Sarah Palin; but all he communicated was that he doesn’t like her. He didn’t make any substantive claims about her that one could judge to be true or not. But Limbaugh spent three days telling outright lies about Sandra Fluke’s testimony.

So where’s the equivalence, Mr. Fish?

If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?

I reject making moral judgments about behavior based on how I feel about the people acting out the behavior. The more useful measure is to consider the effects, actual and potential, of a particular act. And again, by that measure comparing Maher and Limbaugh is comparing a puddle to Lake Superior. They are both “wrong,” but wrong on an entirely different scale. And not equivalent.

See also Whiskey Fire.

Share Button