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“You’re Not Special”: Rush Limbaugh and the Rhetoric of Reality

June 20, 2012

David McCullough, Jr. (son of historian David McCullough) has become famous in the last few weeks for delivering an unconventional commencement speech at Wellesely High School in which he repeatedly told students “you’re not special.” According to McCullough, his main point was that his students needed to understand that what is most important in life is not receiving awards and accolades, but helping others and being selfless. Dubbed the “you’re not special speech,” McCullough’s speech has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube and has resonated deeply with many people who feel that the younger generation is more entitled and narcissistic than older generations.

In the hype surrounding the speech, I have been troubled by the way most editorials and message-board comments have re-contextualized McCullough’s speech, focusing exclusively on the “you’re not special” portion and using it as a springboard for venting their frustrations with young people and American culture generally. Take for example, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who called McCullough’s graduation speech “great,” and had this to say:

“How many of those kids heard that philosophy for the first time in their lives, do you think? They would have heard it, they would have lived it long before they were graduating from high school, in a better world … Reality … Realville. But all the things that used to introduce us to reality have been perverted now in order to increase our self-esteem.”

It is important to notice the way Limbaugh uses a rhetoric of “reality” here. He distinguishes the world that most American kids have been brought up in today from “Reality” or “Realville,” which for Limbaugh is the better world. Throughout the show, Limbaugh goes on to align his conservative values with what is “real,” and privileges these “real” values over the “perverted” ones currently held in America’s schools today. Here “the real” functions as a way for Limbaugh to talk about what is ideal, which he suggests is simply “common sense,” and therefore better.

The problem with this kind of rhetoric of reality is that it allows Limbaugh to avoid addressing or justifying the specific values that his reality assumes, since reality is taken to be self-evident, and so doesn’t stand in need of any explanation. Even worse, this rhetoric of reality also allows him to oversimplify McCullough’s message and then extend it to more than just high school graduates:

“We have civil rights groups in this country telling their charges, “America owes you a living because you’re a minority and because of things that happened hundreds of years ago, or thousands of years ago. The world, this country owes you a living.”

For Limbaugh, raising kids to believe that they are “special” lowers standards for achievement and makes them feel entitled to a living, paid for by the government. And it doesn’t stop with kids or civil rights groups. Limbaugh goes on to extend his problem with America’s “you’re special” upbringing further, claiming that it is the problem with President Obama, and is even responsible for the moral decline of our whole culture:

“From tests, to sports, to grades. Lowering standards to become a cop or a firefighter for women. Lowering standards for entrance into college everywhere … In the interests of making sure everybody’s feeling fine and okay. And the problem is the real world isn’t like that. And I think — I really do think — some of the problems that we have in our culture involving crime and some of the problems we have culturally with a moral decline are rooted in this notion [of being made to feel special].”

In this bit of discourse, we can see how the “you’re not special” catchphrase can even be framed as a way to critique Affirmative Action, among other things. For Limbaugh, the real or ideal world is a place where individuals become successful through their own hard work; it is a world where no one gets help from others; indeed, it is a world where difference is not valued or even acknowledged. Limbaugh’s re-contextualization of McCullough’s speech reveals a deep contempt for difference, and a skepticism about helping others (or admitting you received help), which seems to drift far from McCullough’s advice that students ought discover that “the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.”

While many re-contextualizations of McCullough’s speech are not as extreme as Limbaugh’s, they often invoke a similar rhetoric of reality. But assuming that the “you’re not special” advice is good because it is “real” should be socially suspect since this argument obfuscates what the speaker means by “real.” What this case brings to light is that the way we talk about “the real world” often says more about what we want the world to be than anything about a supposedly objective social reality. As tempting as it is to simply tell young kids that they need a “reality check” or that things are different in “the real world,” we might do better to question what reality we (and others) are promoting, rather than assume that reality is self-evident.

If you want to know more:

  • My point is not that Limbaugh misinterpreted McCullough, but that he re-contextualized McCullough’s speech in a way that has significant political and pedagogical implications. Concerned about the way his speech has been taken out of context, McCullough has argued: “Had I been delivering the speech to a different group of kids, I would have said something else.” McCullough’s remark reminds us of a very important (rhetorical) point: McCullough gave that speech to a specific group of high school students from mostly well-off families, whom he knew well—not to civil rights groups, President Obama, or the nation. Presumably, these students needed some new perspective because their privilege had afforded them many opportunities that others do not have. But some re-contextualizations of McCullough’s speech—like Limbaugh’s—assume that the “you’re not special” message can be appropriately applied to everyone, regardless of their different circumstances, because it speaks of “reality.” Thus what began as an attempt to get a specific group of high school students to see that they shouldn’t always be looking out for themselves has now become a way of criticizing the systems of social welfare.
  • Chaïm Perelman and Lucille Olbrechts-Tyteca observe that the cultural residue of Western philosophy leaves us with a preference for what is “real” as a way to describe what is preferable or valued more highly than other things (e.g.,  what’s “real” is more valued than what’s “fake”). See their chapter on “The Dissociation of Concepts” for more on arguments about reality.
  • Edward Schiappa has written extensively about the rhetoric of the real in Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning. Schiappa argues that the rhetoric of the real is problematic for two reasons: (1) it assumes a form of metaphysical absolutism that entails an outdated philosophy of language; and (2) it obfuscates ethical questions of “ought” with metaphysical questions of “is.”
  • If you are interested in learning more about Rush Limbaugh’s rhetorical style, see Robin Shoaps’ article “The many voices of Rush Limbaugh: The use of transposition in constructing a rhetoric of common sense” in Text 19(3).

Carolyn Commer is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University.

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