Monday, March 12, 2012

The Power (and Abuse) of Words

Recently Rush Limbaugh, never one of my favorite people, stuck his foot deep down his throat with some comments he broadcast about Sandra Fluke after the latter had gone before a congressional committee to argue for the inclusion of birth control treatment in standard health insurance coverage. I don't intend to repeat his words here and extend their influence. You can easily find them on other sites. Many have responded to Limbaugh's words, expressing their outrage at his over-the-top and inappropriate comments. I like this particular response from Soraya Chemaly. Others have chosen to defend his freedom of speech or tried to raise the question of fairness, claiming that liberal commentators have not been taken to task when they have made inappropriate comments about conservative women. I have not been in the information loop until recently so cannot adequately comment on this latter claim, although many of the voices I have read acknowledge fully that outrage should be expressed in response to any speech that degrades a woman for being a woman.

At first I was not going to post anything about this controversy. I didn't want to give any further attention to Limbaugh, because that's what he seems to crave more than anything. Also, others have responded, probably better than I can. I thought at first that it would be best for women to respond because they are the ones under attack. But last night I realized that as a man I also need to raise my voice. We men need to state unequivocally that we stand with our sisters—fellow human beings—in decrying any speech that demeans them as women. Had Limbaugh used degrading terms against any ethnic group he would have been resoundingly pilloried and rightfully so. But because he denigrated a woman, we let it pass. It's a women's issue, after all.

No, it's not.

It's an issue of respect for one another as human beings. Whether we agree with Sandra Fluke's position or not, we owe her the honor of not being called a slut simply because she holds a certain opinion. This article by Chemaly really helped me understand the power of labeling a woman a slut. By his choice of words Limbaugh deliberately sought to marginalize Fluke and label her as an immoral person, one whose voice could be discounted and disregarded. This should not be.

I used to live in an Asian country where women were routinely denigrated by the men around them for any behaviour the men perceived as being immodest or inappropriate. A woman's reputation could be destroyed simply by the word of another, regardless of any real activity on her part. Her choice of clothing or a brief interaction, almost anything could be used against her. A woman in that culture must be constantly thinking about her reputation. What particularly saddened me though was the extent to which it was women themselves who used this slut-shaming technique to keep other women, particularly younger ones, in their proper cultural place. I thought that such labeling didn't occur in my own culture. Now I understand how wrong I was.

Not only am I troubled by Limbaugh's words, I'm even more disturbed by the lack of outcry by evangelical Christians. Their conservativism causes them to blindly support an ungodly man like Limbaugh or, at best, to remain silent. I understand, because I too had remained silent until now. As I said before though, even if someone disagrees with Fluke's perspective, that doesn't mean a person should remain silent when another person is being marginalized and dehumanized for expressing her perspective. We as Christians should be the first to stand up in defense of those who are being silenced. Unfortunately Christians, particularly conservative evangelical (is that redundant?) Christians, fail to place basic human, godly values above their own cultural biases. Rachel Held Evans does a great job in this article exploring what she sees as three key reasons for this support of Limbaugh and others like him. I think she's pinpointed some key issues.

Language is a powerful tool. As Chemaly points out in her article calling a woman a slut is a means to control her. In this article Dianna Anderson pointed out that there is no true equivalent term to describe a man, a word that succinctly denigrates a man's behaviour and his moral character, marginalizing and disempowering him in one simple term. Our words have power and when used as Limbaugh used his, they are a deadly weapon. We need to change the way we use our words and select them more carefully, not that we would never offend another person, but that we would not simplistically categorize and discount a person or group of people because they are of a particular gender, ethnic group, religion or anything else. We can disagree without dehumanizing our opponents. That's called civil discourse. It's also in keeping with recognizing the image of the divine in each human being.

I want to watch my own speech. While I cannot recall that I have deliberately called a woman a slut, neither can I say that I have never done so. In fact, if I haven't actually said it, I've probably thought it in response to the way a woman dresses or behaves. I may not approve of her clothing or behaviour, but I need to stop labeling her and categorizing her for this. My words have power and this unguy is going to wield that power more wisely and graciously.


  1. Saying "conservative evangelical" is not redundant. There are many of us evangelicals who would not identify ourselves as conservatives.

    1. You are correct, of course. Unfortunately I think that the term evangelical has come to be linked, especially to those outside the Church, with a conservative viewpoint and a lot of things associated with that. For this reason, among others, a growing group of people, particularly younger ones, are uncomfortable with the label. So those who are evangelical and not conservative must either speak more strongly from a non-conservative evangelical viewpoint (I don't say more loudly, because it's not just about volume) or they abandon the label and seek other terms to describe themselves.

      Of course there are other reasons than association with conservativism that people would choose not to identify as evangelical, but that's another topic altogether.

      I'm curious how you would define evangelical, Mark. I'm not sure I could clearly define it for myself right now.