Stanley Fish’s Strange Double Standard

March 13, 2012   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX

Rush Limbaugh Sandra Fluke

By Marie Burns:

Stanley Fish is a legal scholar. But he is hazy on the law. Stanley Fish is a literary critic. But he doesn’t recognize metaphor, context or nuance. Stanley Fish has written extensively on rhetoric. But he ignores rhetorical elements as basic as the power of repetition and the fallacy of false equivalence. His New York Times blogpost on what he describes as a liberal “double standard” is critical malpractice. But it might please Rush Limbaugh.

Fish’s post represents rhetorical sleight-of-hand from the get-go. He starts out by mischaracterizing the texts in question. Here is how Fish reports Limbaugh’s transgressions: “Rush Limbaugh … called Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown, a ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ because she told Congress that her university’s health plan should cover the cost of contraceptives.” End of story.

Fish uses a common reportorial trick to characterize analogous liberal miscreants: he lets “conservatives” lay out the case, thus absolving himself of responsibility for the characterization:

… some on the conservative side of the aisle have cried ‘double standard’ because Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized (and suspended for a week) for characterizing Laura Ingraham as a ‘right-wing slut,’ and Bill Maher emerged relatively unscathed after he referred to Michele Bachmann as a ‘bimbo’ and labeled Sarah Palin with words I can’t mention in this newspaper.

The words Fish can’t mention are “dumb twat” and “cunt.”

So that’s what happened. He said/they said. The right does it. The left does it. There’s really no difference. The only difference, Fish asserts, lies in the way liberals reacted to the remarks. He asks, “If you are going to get on your high horse when Limbaugh says something inappropriate, shouldn’t you also mount the steed when commentators on your team say the same kind of thing?” So it’s “high horse” versus “mildly criticized” and “relatively unscathed.” That’s Fish’s case for a double standard. Looks bad, doesn’t it?

But wait. It’s even worse. Fish cites “the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism” which incorporates “a requirement of procedural reciprocity – you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for.” Fish calls “procedural reciprocity” a “transposition … of the Golden Rule.” Later, Fish adds, parenthetically, “(Fairness is the great liberal virtue.)” Wow! Liberal Rush-bashing betrays enlightenment philosophy, abandons the one great “liberal virtue” and breaks the universal Golden Rule.

Now, is that really the way it all happened? First, we had better look at the actual texts Fish claims to analyze here. According to Fish, Limbaugh merely called Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” in response to her advocacy for contraceptive health coverage in her university insurance policy. The text of Fluke’s testimony is here (pdf). Her testimony relates the cost of contraception, the difficulty of obtaining it, and the consequences: a friend who was unable to get the birth control pills she needed to control the growth ovarian cysts lost one of her ovaries and would suffer other ill effects. The video is here.

Media Matters has a compendium of Limbaugh’s remarks about Fluke, complete with audiotapes, here. Among other remarks, on February 29, Limbaugh falsely claimed that Fluke (whom he called “Susan Fluke”) went “before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex.” He added, again misstating her testimony, and this time also making a sexist remark about Minority Leader Pelosi, that Fluke appeared at “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.” He “took back” his remark that Fluke was a “slut” by saying, “OK, so, she’s not a slut. She’s round-heeled.”

The next day, March 1, Limbaugh expanded his criticism of Fluke to “all the women at Georgetown University,” for whom he said he would buy “as much aspirin to put between their knees as possible.” He called contraceptive health coverage “flat-out thievery” that was forcing taxpayers to pay to “satisfy the sexual habits of female law students at Georgetown.” (Georgetown students pay for their own health insurance. Taxpayers do not contribute.) Pretending to speak in Fluke’s voice, he mocked her testimony, saying in a babyish or girly tone, “I’m going broke having sex. I need government to provide me condoms and contraception. It’s not fair.” Addressing Fluke directly, Limbaugh asked, “Ms. Fluke, have you ever heard of not having sex? Have you ever heard of not having sex so often?” He alleged that Fluke was “having so much sex, it’s amazing she can still walk.” He implied that she had been sexually-active since she was in grade school, asking, “Who bought your condoms in junior high? Who bought your condoms in the sixth grade? Or your contraception. Who bought your contraceptive pills in high school?” He told her that the Washington, D.C., Department of Health would “send you free condoms and lube.” He described Fluke as “a woman who is happily presenting herself as an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her life woman. She wants all the sex in the world whenever she wants it, all the time, no consequences. No responsibility for her behavior.” (Fluke never testified or alluded to her own sexual activities.) In an oft-quoted remark, Limbaugh said,

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.

On March 2, Limbaugh defended and repeated some of his previous comments about Fluke, alluding again to the supposed frequency of her sexual activity: “Oh! Does she have more boyfriends? They’re lined up around the block. They would have been in my day.” He falsely alleged that Fluke had testified that her “sex life is active. She’s having sex so frequently that she can’t afford all the birth-control pills that she needs. That’s what she’s saying.” He said that requiring insurance companies to cover contraception is “no different than if somebody knocked on my door that I don’t know and said, ‘You know what? I’m out of money. I can’t afford birth-control pills, and I’m supposed to have sex with three guys tonight.’” He said that if his daughter had testified that “she’s having so much sex she can’t pay for it and wants a new welfare program to pay for it,” he would be “embarrassed,” “disconnect the phone,” “go into hiding” and “hope the media didn’t find me.” (Limbaugh, who is married to his fourth wife, has no children.)

Over a three-day period, Limbaugh attacked Fluke a total of 46 times, as Media Matters documented. On March 3, Limbaugh repeated some of his earlier criticisms of Fluke and of contraceptive health coverage. In a statement released on his Website the same day, he apologized for his “poor word choice” of two words: “slut” and “prostitute,” the only two “word choices” Stanley Fish mentions in his post. He said “I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.”

On March 5, Limbaugh “explained” his apology to Fluke: he blamed “the left” for causing him to “descend to their level when I used those two words….” He said he had “always tried to maintain a very high degree of integrity and independence on this program. Nevertheless, those two words were inappropriate.”

So that’s what Limbaugh said. Now let’s look at what liberal MSNBC host Ed Schultz and libertarian comedian Bill Maher said.

Ed Schultz was talking about President Obama’s trip to Ireland on his radio show, according to this May 25, 2011, reportin the right-wing Daily Caller. Schultz said,

And what are the Republicans thinking about? … They’re just thinking about how much this is going to cost. President Obama is going to be visiting Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday but you know what they’re talking about, like this right-wing slut, what’s her name?, Laura Ingraham? Yeah, she’s a talk slut. You see, she was, back in the day, praising President Reagan when he was drinking a beer overseas. But now that Obama’s doing it, they’re working him over.

As Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reported the next day, “Schultz apologized for the comment on his TV program, ‘The Ed Show,’ on Wednesday night, saying he had used ‘vile and inappropriate language’ in referring to Ingraham. ‘I am deeply sorry, and I apologize,’ he said. ‘It was wrong, uncalled for, and I recognize the severity of what I said. I apologize to you, Laura, and ask for your forgiveness.’” The Post report incorporates part of the extended apology Schultz made and notes that MSNBC suspended Schultz for a week, even though he made the remarks on his radio show, not on his MSNBC show.

In March 2001, the Daily Caller noted that Bill Maher said on “Real Time,” his HBO show,

Did you hear this – Sarah Palin finally heard what happened in Japan and she’s demanding that we invade ‘Tsunami.’ I mean she said, ‘These ‘Tsunamians’ will not get away with this.’ Oh speaking of dumb twats, did you –

The next week, as the Daily Caller documented, Maher said on “Real Time,”

Well, you know, a birther could be running for president. Michele Bachmann this week threw her hat into the ring, kind of. We think she’s going to be running for president – for those that find Sarah Palin too intellectual. Michele Bachmann for president – as a comedian, all I have to say is where can I donate to this cause? I love this. If Bachmann and Palin both get in, that’s two bimbos, and then there’s Mitt Romney, a millionaire, Newt Gingrich, a professor. We just need a Skipper and a buddy and we got Gilligan’s Island.

A few days later, at a stand-up show in Dallas, Texas, Maher reportedly called “Palin a ‘cunt’ (‘there’s just no other word for her’).”

Maher did not apologize. Over the past week, he has twice defended Rush Limbaugh for his comments about Sandra Fluke, first in a Tweet, then again on his HBO show. Maher argued that he was not defending Limbaugh but “defending living in a country where people don’t have to be afraid that they might go out of the bounds for one minute. Do we all want to be talking like White House spokesmen?”

Although Stanley Fish uses unnamed conservatives to establish the equivalency between Limbaugh on the one hand and Schultz and Maher on the other, Fish never disputes the conservative claim. In fact, he does incorporate it, as if the remarks were equivalent, into his subsequent arguments about the liberal “double standard.” He writes, “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.”

Yet when we look at Schultz’s remarks, they hardly compare to Limbaugh’s sustained attacks on Fluke. Schultz uses the term “slut” not to comment on Ingraham’s sexual activities but on her political pandering. It’s a metaphor, though as Schultz said, not an appropriate one. Ingraham was, in terms of Schultz’s metaphor, “lying down for” the right. He was not implying that Ingraham was sexually promiscuous. Limbaugh, on the other hand, repeatedly remarked that Fluke was incredibly promiscuous and asserted she had been so since grade school.

As for Maher’s remarks, on his HBO show, he did not directly call Palin a “dumb twat,” but that was of course his intention. He managed to derogate her without actually calling her a name. The word “twat” refers to the vulva and is one of the penultimate terms used to objectify and demean women: reducing them to nothing but sexual body parts. Apparently Maher did directly call Palin a “cunt,” and that is inexcusable. Yes, these words are, by definition, metaphors, too, but they are even less appropriate than “slut.” The term “slut” is a reference to a woman’s activities; “cunt” and “twat” signal that a woman is merely a sexual organ. “Slut” is a choice; “cunt” is an irrevocable state of being. I cannot think of any circumstance in which labeling a woman a “twat” or a “cunt” would be appropriate, and that includes “edgy” stand-up “comedy.” The term “bimbo” is different. In English, it now means “a woman who is physically attractive but is perceived to have a low intelligence or poor education. The term can also be used to describe a woman who acts in a sexually promiscuous manner.” In its first meaning, it is perfectly appropriate to apply to Palin and Bachmann. Because of the second meaning, I wouldn’t use it. Under most circumstances, my meaning would be wholly in the mind of the hearer.

My recollection is that Maher, like Limbaugh, has a history of unapologetically objectifying women. I was unaware of his labeling Palin a “cunt,” but I quit watching his HBO show about the time he obliquely called Palin a “twat.” I quit for the same reason I quit watching Jay Leno years ago: Leno couldn’t get through a monologue without making at least one “joke” about gay men. I didn’t quit in protest. I didn’t boycott these shows. I quit watching because they were shows I tuned into for laughs and instead ended up feeling uncomfortable. It really is not funny to hear a “comedian” stereotyping and derogating women and gays (or others).

That said, I don’t think even Maher’s remarks about Palin rise to the same level Limbaugh’s sustained attack on Fluke do. The worst of Maher’s slurs never went out over the air, and – as far as I am aware – he did not attempt to sustain his attack on her, nor did he – again, as far as I know – make remarks about her personal sexual habits. (This is not true, however, of his treatment of Palin’s daughter Bristol. Maher did make fun of Bristol’s sexual exploits; however, Bristol made her own sex life more-or-less fair game when she wrote a fairly unbelievable account of her surprise pregnancy.)

Fish would appreciate that words with more than one meaning are rather perfect “proofs” of reader response theory: the author’s (or speaker’s) intent is nearly immaterial; assignment of meaning is completely the responsibility of the reader/hearer. A bimbo to one hearer is not the same as a bimbo to another. That is the problem with Schultz’s use of the term “talk slut,” too. Fish implies that Schultz’s audience was too dumb to know that Schultz was disparaging Ingraham’s politics, not her personal behavior. Some listeners probably didn’t understand his intent. The use of highly-charged language is effective only when it produces the results the speaker intended. Clearly, “slut” did not work for Schultz. By contrast, it did work for Limbaugh. His intent was to shock the conscience of his listeners and to denigrate Fluke. He succeeded. Given the extended and explicit nature of his attacks, his claim that he did not mean to attack her personally is not credible.

Fish also conveniently ignores the political practices of the women who were the subjects of Schultz’s and Maher’s insults. Laura Ingraham has made a career of insulting liberals and has made odd sexist remarks herself. She may not have called Speaker Pelosi a prostitute, but she came close: “Nancy Pelosi basically did everything except sell her own body” to pass the healthcare bill. Ingraham wasn’t above mocking Janet Napolitano’s appearance: looking at Napolitano, she said,was like looking at gruesome pictures of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. Palin is well-known for her incendiary remarks. She cut her national political teeth claiming “Barack Obama was palling around with terrorists.” This is a theme she has repeated during his presidency, even claiming at one point that “if we [in the Tea Party] were real domestic terrorists, I don’t think President Obama would have a problem with us.” Bachmann said she “absolutely” believed Barack Obamaheld “anti-American views” and that the news media should investigate Congress to find out which members held similar “anti-Americans views.” Let’s not even go into the dingbat factor. This is not to suggest that making incendiary comments renders a political figure or pundit fair game for sexist slurs, but it does make them legitimate targets of criticism. Since Fluke has never made any inappropriate public remarks, this is another area where Fish implies a false equivalence. He simply does not take into account the differences between Fluke’s respectful testimony and the rhetorical excesses of Ingraham, Palin and Bachmann. Fish does not recognize or account for the essential differences between the targets of the slurs coming from left and right.

Fish writes, again parenthetically, that “(Some left-wing commentators have argued that there is a principled way of slamming Limbaugh while letting the other two off the hook, because he went after a private citizen while they were defaming public figures. Won’t wash.)” Fish doesn’t explain why this won’t wash. He just states it as a fact. But it ain’t necessarily so. As a legal scholar, Fish is aware that public figures generally have a harder time making a defamation case than do private citizens. A case involving the newspaper Fish writes for set the standard: In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme court ruled that publications were guilty of libel only if public officials could prove actual malice; the public figure had to show the publisher’s “knowledge that the information was false” or that the publisher made the accusations “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Subsequent cases, however, have blurred the line between public and private figures. Should Fluke sue him for defamation, Limbaugh would certainly argue that Fluke, by insinuating herself into a highly-controversial public-policy issue, had made herself a public figure. It isn’t clear if a court would agree; it might depend upon the venue. In short, it just might “wash,” Prof. Fish.

Fish goes on to make an odd – and extended – argument in defense of liberal attacks on Limbaugh. He suggests that identity politics or “tribal” cohesion justify treating “the other side” differently. I don’t buy it, and I don’t think most fair-minded people would. There are many instances where hard-ball tactics are justified, but there are few time where calling an earnest young woman a slut and wantonly speculating about her private life are appropriate. Bristol Palin and any number of starlets who attempt to capitalize on their unwarranted fame may be cases where such comments are, if tasteless, at least not beyond the pale. But Limbaugh’s treatment of Fluke was way over any line. Fluke never made any comments about her own sexual activities or those of other Georgetown students. Rather, she spoke to women’s healthcare needs. It was Limbaugh who sexualized the issue and invented testimony Fluke never even remotely made. Limbaugh repeatedly made insulting remarks about Fluke’s sex life without the slightest basis for his speculation. Fish not only does not acknowledge the complete falsity of Limbaugh’s remarks, he hides the falsehoods and attempts to excuse Limbaugh’s language by establishing a false equivalence: since liberal and libertarian commentators have used defamatory language on occasion, liberals are unfair to complain about Limbaugh unless they issue similar condemnations of Ed Schultz. The only excuse liberals have, according to Fish, is a sort of primitive tribal scream.

Rush Limbaugh insulted not just Sandra Fluke but the 99 percent of American women who have used contraceptive methods and who should be afforded contraceptive health insurance. Stanley Fish insulted 100 percent of American liberals. Since there are fewer liberals in this country than there are women, maybe Fish isn’t as bad as Limbaugh. By this measure, I suppose the New York Times has slightly higher standards than Rush Limbaugh’s.

Marie Burns blogs at 


Readers Comments (1)

  1. alphonsegaston says:

    What bullcrap-a slur, perhaps, but true. The differences between Limbaugh and these others is enormous. It seems to me that Fish does not grasp what unacceptable and purely personal attacks on a private citizen are. I have not read him much before your pieces here, and frankly I seriously question his intelligence.



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