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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Speech means never having to say you're sorry

At least not for the ideas you expressed. Rush Limbaugh is finding that his "apology" is not having the expected traction--several conservative commentators and congressional leaders have called on him to make a better apology (one that is not just for his "choice of words") and some advertisers are continuing to pull support. Even worse, Peter Gabriel has withdrawn permission for his "Sledgehammer" to be used on the show. (Update: Amanda Marcotte at Slate argues that Limbaugh's apology didn't take because he didn't really apologize and probably had no intention of apologizing because he meant what he said, just not the way he said it).

Then there is actress Patricia Heaton, apparently well-known as an anti-choice conservative, who took to Twitter with a string of beauties directed at Sandra Fluke (some screen-captured here), including:

• "Hey GTown Gal: How about only having sex on Wednesday? (Hump day!)," Heaton wrote in a tweet last Thursday."

• "Hey G-Town Gal: turn your underwear inside out! Then u only have to do laundry every 2 weeks—saves on detergent & trips to Laundromat!"

•"If your parents have to pay for your birth control, maybe they should get a say in who u sleep with. Instant birth control."

Heaton initially shut down her Twitter account, then came back on with the following: "I didn't treat her with respect and I'm sorry. I was wrong. Mea Culpa."

This is slightly better than Limbaugh's apology, which acknowledges that the problem is more than word choice. But I repeat my point from my earlier post: What is she apologizing for and why? This is not something she did without thinking or on the spur of the moment. This was multiple tweets spread out over the course of a day, all of which required intentionality to act, as well as some thought and creativity, since she at least tried to be funny or clever in her insults. Did it never occur to her during any of her sessions at the keyoad that she was not treating Fluke with respect? The timing suggests she is not sorry about what she said or for disrespecting Fluke, but because a lot of people got angry at her for disrespecting Fluke.

More importantly, I want people to own their outrageous and offensive speech. If you really believe that a woman who uses birth control is per se promiscuous, say so. If you really believe any 20-something single woman who is sexually active is immoral, say so. And stick to your original words, which more likely reflect your true feelings and beliefs. Don't back off what you said, especially where what you said was not in the heat of the moment and thus not a product of a momentary lapse of judgment or reason. Especially since, as the screen-capture shows, words on the internet may be forever. Speak out, be as provacative or obnoxious as you want, and handle the consequences.

Does this coarsen public discourse in the short run? Perhaps. But perhaps voices such as Heaton's or Limbaugh's will eventually fall silent when they generate sufficient negative blowback or reaction from other speakers.

Or not. Monday, Limbaugh was back to blaming Democrats for manipulating Fluke and for twisting his comments to fit their recurring theme that "Republicans hate women." In other words, Limbaugh does not understand how, other than through political bias, his comments could be seen as sexist. That is not the sound of someone who recognizes that he did something inappropriate. If so, then don't bother apologizing and don't bother pretending that you recognize you did something wrong when you obviously don't believe  you did.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 6, 2012 at 11:51 AM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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Of course it occurred to her (and Rush) that they were not treating Fluke with respect. It's the classic public-figure apology. They're not actually sorry for what they did; they're sorry that what they did led to adverse consequences. They offer to take it back or undo it to try to mitigate those consequences. If they could ensure there would be no consequences, they would say/do the same thing again, over and over, and even more vehemently.

Posted by: KK | Mar 6, 2012 12:52:02 PM

I think you're pushing back too far in the other direction. Apologies are sometimes appropriate, and sometimes people do learn from their mistakes. I think that's unlikely to ever happen for Rush, but we ought not encourage all people to view their opinions as set in stone. The fact that people like Rush view their opinions as eternally set is part of the problem, not something to emulate.

And for the record, the fact that the tweets were sent out multiple times throughout the day doesn't mean they weren't sent in the heat of the moment. Internet arguments, sporadic and disconnected as they are, can often see the "heat of the moment" broken up and spread across significant portions of time. It subsides in between, but comes back each time you return to the screen. Whether or not you think that excuses it, of course, is another matter.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 8, 2012 11:36:52 AM

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