Part Two will be more about Limbaugh himself
Rush Limbaugh and his influence came up in a recent series of emails. Colbert and Stewart also came up in the exchange. I suspected that I hadn’t written much about Rush over my 2300 posts, and that seems a glaring lack. Everyone who comments frequently about political culture should probably get around to Limbaugh somewhere in five years. The site search reveals that I have mentioned him briefly in five posts, and in passing in five others. They former have some similarity to what I will say here. Three from 2007 have more than a few sentences about him - one also included Jon Stewart, and was the most pertinent to my email discussion. I defend a comment of his as not-outrageous here.
A fourth talks about media influence in general and his place in it, so that also fits. The fifth is my own poor attempt at humor.
I still agree with those posts, though one ends with a statement even I can’t figure out what I meant. They serve as supporting data to my next post.
I listened to Rush for a few minutes at lunch for over ten years, occasionally catching a full hour. Yesterday I made a point of listening to him again. That’s the extent of my authority.
Preliminary exercise #1: Which is worse, taunting or smirking?
Those aren’t the only ways to disagree, of course. There are declaring, hinting, confronting and a dozen others. But when things go bad, they often tend into one of the two categories.
I grew up in a culture where taunting was considered much worse. You could get in trouble for smirking (wipe that smile off your face) but taunting would bring parental wrath. Taunting was something low, not done by nice people. My mother’s second marriage was into a games-and-sports family where jocular taunting was more accepted. It was not always entirely well-meant. Further on in highschool or college, smirking became an art form (particularly in the arts). I still react to taunters badly. There seems something just wrong about it. Yet when pressed, I am unable to identify a moral or logical reason why it should be worse. There is clearly something more social attached to class about the preference. The stereotype of taunting is Hulk Hogan. Of smirking, William F. Buckley, Jr. Though more acceptable in polite company, smirking may be crueler and more dangerous.
The social exceptions illuminate some deeper trends. Male banter around sports and games is often affectionate, though not always so. Smirking is seldom well-meant. Smirk at your opponent in a sport and your own fans may turn on you. Yet between lovers, it is smirking that is sometimes affectionate, taunting seldom. Taunting springs from the realm of the physical or emotional power, smirking from various others: authority, wit, knowledge, social control.
None of us likes to be on the receiving end of either; nor of criticism in even its politer forms of hinting or declaration. But though we react badly to both, we react differently. Our automatic primitive responses tell us that the taunter might erupt into violence. The smirker bears watching closely and may be more dangerous, but is not an immediate threat. It’s pretty easy to understand this developing in our social understanding all the way back into our small-tribe, hunter-gatherer days. But does our evolutionary response to these two styles, developed when society was 100-200 related individuals who met on uneasy terms with other groups a few times a year, translate at all into the discourse of 300 million people? Can we trust our responses to accurately warn us of danger?
There is not a clear left-right political breakdown on this taunting versus smirking. The right may lean more toward taunting and the left to smirking, but Ted Kennedy was a taunter. Jonah Goldberg is a smirker. But it does go some way toward explaining current reactions. The farther-left protestors who tend toward taunting do erupt into violence rather frequently. Taunting on the right, less often. Taunting seems to mean something different in the two groups. Ethnic protests – Hispanic, Arab, African-American – are awash in taunting. I am not at all certain that has the same meaning or potential for violence in each group.
The whole impression of "hate speech" may owe more to this social history than to content. Smirkers are positive that taunters are violent. Taunters are certain that smirkers are devious.
Preliminary exercise #2. Word Association.
In popular culture, the psychoanalyst’s word association exercise is about what your immediate response it to a series of words. When the analyst says pretty, do you say “girl” or “awful.” But the more important aspect is what you hesitate over. What is the immediate association you pushed out of your mind and would not say? Conscious or unconscious pushing out, it still has meaning.
There are words we dare not say, and move with astonishing speed to find an acceptable substitute to disguise it. More deeply, there are thoughts we dare not think, and move even faster to substitute those. Reasoning is not mainly about applying a set of logical rules on a set of words or ideas. Reasoning is first about examining what we dare not say, and second what we dare not think. Only then are we even able to apply the set of logical rules.
In the hard sciences, the data is sometimes revealed to have been pointing in a certain direction for years though no one could see it, because they were determined to see something else. With core issues of meaning, identity, and legacy at stake, this is even more desperately true in the realms of morality, politics, and theology. What is it that we dare not even entertain, that we evade and seamlessly change the subject when the thought comes near?