Philosophy, Politics, Washington Post

Conservatism, Content, and Context

Kathleen Parker’s column in the Washington Post is worth reading today, not because it’s a great or novel or interesting argument, but because it’s an illustrative example of a serious problem with conservative rhetoric.

The argument’s straightforward:

Demeaning women for fun and profit may be legal and permissible in a free society, but it shouldn’t be acceptable.

Check. ANY denigration of women is unacceptable, ANYtime. Also:

In the wake of “Slutgate,” the operative argument seems to have devolved into a barnyard taunt: “My pig isn’t as bad as your pig.” This pithy summation comes from Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren, who has been leading the charge against vile language used to describe women in the public square.

Well…sort of. In order to put Van Susteren at the fore of the charge, you’ve got to see Louis C.K. as women’s public enemy #1—not Rush Limbaugh or any other recent offender.

And that gets us to Parker’s blind spot. At a basic level, she’s right. All misogyny is created equal—call a woman a “slut” and you’re out-of-bounds for public discourse, no matter who you are. She takes it to mean that we shouldn’t distinguish between anyone who uses such language. That’s why she concludes:

In the barnyard we call American culture, a pig is a pig is a pig.

Sarah Palin

Of course, this basic equivalency obscures some obvious truths—most notably the relevant context of each man’s insulting, objectionable speech. It only works, of course, if a major party’s vice presidential candidate is indistinguishable from a law student testifying before Congress. It only works if a conservative icon and political kingmaker is indistinguishable from a late night comedian (incidentally, I’ve never seen C.K.’s show. I know next-to-nothing about him. Based upon what this little tiff has brought to my attention, I wouldn’t call myself a fan).

Parker includes a throwaway line acknowledging what she’d like very much to hide:

The argument that comedians fall into a different category is valid to a point, but journalists and public leaders don’t have to be parties to their act.

Rush Limbaugh speaking at CPAC.

Right—and this little nugget is actually the crux of the issue. Rush Limbaugh’s politics show averages over 15 million radio listeners each week. Louis C.K.’s comedy show averages less than 2 million each week. Rush Limbaugh speaks regularly at conservative summits and revival meetings, from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on down to campaign events. Louis C.K. is a standup comedian. Did both say horrifying things about women? Definitely. Are both pigs? Certainly. Should C.K. be permitted to host the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner? Perhaps not. Should Limbaugh be permitted to continue speaking at CPAC? Perhaps not. Does any of this mean that we can’t distinguish between the two? Of course not. 

Surely we can recognize that there’s a difference between disgusting comedy directed at a major public figure and a sustained, determined assault on a relatively powerless student. Indeed, if Parker truly wonders why President Obama “never raised his voice for Palin,” she might consider that Palin was hardly without a public voice of her own. If Sandra Fluke’s case has attracted more media attention, that may be because the power disparity between her and her attacker was so vast (Obvious disclaimer reminder: As I’ve just written, this doesn’t excuse C.K.’s jokes. If you think it does, make like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book and start over at the top).

Conservatives often structure their arguments this way. Both money and words influence public debates—so conservatives conclude that both should be regulated identically. For that to work, though, words and votes and $100 million checks must be indistinguishable. Around 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global climate change, and only a few dozen doubt it—so conservatives conclude that we need to have the “debate.” For that to work, peer-reviewed research must be indistinguishable from this nonsense. Conservatives periodically argue that special treatment of American minorities is unfair because similar protections aren’t extended to whites. For that to work, though, we need to ignore centuries of brutal and systemic racism against minorities (often, if not always, perpetuated by white Americans).

The conservative error, in other words is to eclipse the context of words (or policies) by attending too closely to their specific content. Conservatives insist that if two men say terrible things about women, there’s no way to judge which of them is more dangerous or harmful or worthy of repudiation. They want to pretend that we can judge statements without considering the speaker, the target, the mouthpiece, or the circumstances—except, of course, when it’s convenient to notice such things


Noticed this post at Politic365 as I finished my own. It covers similar turf, and is certainly worth a read.

About CPW

Conor P. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Find him on Facebook or Twitter. Here’s his email. Here are his credentials.

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