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Limbaugh and Birth Control: “Rushing” to Inaccurate Conclusions is No “Fluke”

March 19, 2012

Given his history of having really stupid things to say on the subjects of healthcare and religion, it’s no real surprise that Rush Limbaugh found himself in the middle of a controversy involving the intersection of the two. A couple weeks back, Limbaugh ran his giant fleshy mouth off about a Georgetown Law School student named Sandra Fluke, calling her all sorts of not-nice things.

See, Fluke testified before a group of Democratic senators about the ongoing controversy over mandating that health insurers cover contraception, arguing that access to birth control was cost prohibitive. As an interesting aside, apparently she’d already been banned from speaking before a bipartisan committee because the dude in charge of the thing, Rep. Darrel Issa, didn’t want any icky girls around ruining his totally hetero churchbros-only sausage party or something. But speak she did, eventually, even if she only got to preach to the Democratic choir. So Limbaugh basically gets his bilious knickers in a twist about it and goes on a tirade, calls her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” pisses off everyone from Barack Obama to Peter Gabriel, and loses a whole bunch of sponsors in the process.

Reactions to the whole event have characterized Limbaugh as a bully and a misogynist. Which, I mean, duh. But that’s like nowhere near the most interesting part of this whole thing. What caught my ear the first time through is how he consistently and blatantly mischaracterizes how birth control pills, um, work. For example, Limbaugh says that Fluke’s testimony boils down to her asking for the government to pay for her birth control (more like COMMIEtraception, amirite?) because she’s “having so much sex she can’t afford her own birth control pills.” Which makes it sound like the more sex you have, the more birth control pills you need to take. Which even I know is inaccurate, and I don’t even really understand where babies come from. And, lest you think he just misspoke that once and really meant to talk about single-use contraceptives like condoms or whatever, you can check out this video collage, wherein you will find footage of him saying that Fluke and other Georgetown students are just “sex-crazed coeds” who are “having so much sex they can’t afford the birth control pills,” that they are in fact “having so much sex they are going broke buying birth control pills,” that there’s “so much sex going on they can’t afford birth control pills,” et cetera, et cetera.

Surprisingly enough, none of the stories I’ve read about this business in the liberal Rush-hating lamestream media point out this glaring inaccuracy, which seems like a pretty easy way to undermine his credibility on the issue if that was the sort of thing one was wont to do. But still, I’m fascinated by his statements. Why would Rush Limbaugh say such a thing? Surely he’s been around the block enough times to know how the pill works. I mean, dude’s been married more times than Newt Gingrich. Then I thought that maybe he was just trying to misinform his audience members, who might not know how birth control works. But that doesn’t really make much sense either. I mean, I know I’m a big-city elite and all that, but it just doesn’t seem likely that enough people out there would be able to be that misinformed about how birth control pills work that it would be worthwhile to say such a thing for that reason alone.

But then it hit me. Limbaugh doesn’t really care about the accuracy of that statement; its rhetorical purpose has nothing to do with what birth control actually does or how it works. Rush is a conservative opinion-maker, and the conservative line on this whole mandated coverage for birth control issue is that it’s no good, no good at all. And, as I’ve commented on this here blog before, this discussion involves tricky definitional questions about health and medicine, not to mention women’s and religious rights, and so on. It’s a complex debate, so if you want to persuade your audience that it’s a simple case of government overstepping, it’s way easier to focus the discussion on something that the audience already thinks is bad. If that focus is somewhat inaccurate, all the better, because that will do nothing but stir up misleading controversy and debate. See, if there’s one thing conservatives hate, it’s sex for purposes other than procreation. And if there’s one thing liberals hate, it’s every time Rush Limbaugh opens his big fat mouth.

Inaccurate or not, Limbaugh’s comments have gotten everyone talking and thinking about sex(ism) and what a jerk he is, instead of thinking about healthcare. Even though he’s making himself the bad guy here, setting himself up to be vilified and then reveling in it, he’s still shaping the ongoing discussion on this issue, unfortunately more than Ms. Fluke ever could herself. In the process, he’s aiding in its gross oversimplification and mischaracterization.

If you want to know more:

  • Like so much of what I talk about in these blog posts, this can be understood as an issue of framing. For a concise introduction to what that means to us rhetoric types, check out Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. We could also think about it as an issue of rhetorical stases; Limbaugh is focusing the debate on values when it’s also about definitions.
  • Doug’s last post references a course he took on the rhetoric of indirection. While I wasn’t in the course with him due to a conflict with a required course that I had to take and he didn’t because he’s a big shot and got it out of the way while doing his MA here at CMU, what Rush is up to seems like a kind of indirection to me. Or at least misdirection. The rhetoric of misdirection; has a nice ring to it. Maybe I’ll teach my own course. Take that, Doug Cloud, M.A.!
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