Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Rush, Tosh and the new rules of sexism

As I sit here typing this, I’m engaged in a heated debate on Facebook about Rush Limbaugh while watching Tosh.0.

The debate involves whether Rush deserves to be singled out for his “slut” comment or whether it is a broader phenomenon among pundits such as Bill Maher. On the surface, the issue is a play of the equivalency card — an attempt to mitigate some of the damage by finding a supposedly equal broadcaster on the left and conflating their own transgressions. But is there really a Rush Limbaugh of the left? A self-serious broadcaster with a similar reach with legions of followers hanging on his every word? I don’t think there is.

But forget that. There’s an angle of this debate that I think matters more. Intent.

I mentioned that I’m watching Tosh.0. Host Daniel Tosh makes a lot of black jokes, often following them up with lines such as, “It’s funny because it’s racist!” I consider myself a very PC person and an advocate of civil rights and gender equity. I also tend not to gravitate toward white-guy racial humor. That said, I don’t feel guilty laughing at Tosh. Why? Because he also makes similar barbs about whites, Asians, Hispanics, Democrats, Republicans, current events, nerds, women, men, children and especially himself. It’s because he’s a comedian on a TV show that pushes boundaries; his stock in trade is to cross some line, then crack a self-satisfied (and self-parodic) smile. Also, he’s not actually a racist, which helps. The fact that he regularly has black and women guests on his show proves that. If someone I knew to be a vicious racist said the same things, they wouldn’t be at all funny.

Same deal with Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher. I will concede that Bill has a sexist streak at times, one that often crosses the Tosh barrier of tolerance. He does himself no favors by calling politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann names that begin with B and C. But his intent is juvenile, not sexist. Bill has repeatedly argued in favor of sexual equality, and he frequently invites prominent women onto his show. At the end of the day, Bill seems more like a Little Rascal than a He-Man Woman Hater.

Rush, on the other hand, is a true misogynist. His contempt for women flows so freely that I wonder if even he’s aware how deep it runs. The man who coined the term “feminazi” 20 years ago has continued full-stride in the ensuing decades to degrade women at every turn. And he has made no effort to argue against this reputation, despite having numerous chances and the massive forum in which to do so. So when he reduces the discourse on the contraception debate to a “slut” insisting that the public subsidize her sluttiness, and calls for her ilk to post sex videos online as payback, it’s hard to take that as a joke.

The difference between Bill and Rush is the same as between John Hughes and Michael Vick — when Hughes writes a scene about a dog torn up on the highway, it’s amusing. Had Vick penned the scene, it would have been a horrible glimpse into an unrepentant psyche.

The truth is, plenty of people on all sides of the debate could tone down the sexual rhetoric. But we shouldn’t downplay the severity of what Rush said by insisting that, because people like Bill Maher have also said four-letter words, such hateful intent is equally spread around. It’s not. Even if it was, it has no place among our most widespread founts of commentary. Rush is shirking his responsibilities more than any of his counterparts, and has the experience to understand that. He’s in a class by himself. If a word like “class” even applies.

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