Sunday, March 11, 2012

The "what you did" vs. "who you are" distinction matters

So Rush Limbaugh's brother David is sticking up for him and complaining that people aren't accepting Rush's sincere (yes, that's how David characterizes it) apology for being a bigoted lout. The apology in which, I would note, Rush further insults those whose pardon he ostensibly seeks by suggesting that his poor behavior amounts to sinking down to their level. The refusal to accept this apology as authentic and satisfactory by liberals, David says, amounts to rank hypocrisy. You can probably guess the basis for that complaint before I even quote him:
What I am observing is the most radical display of hate and intolerance that I've witnessed in years. It does not surprise me, but it is ironic that the very people who masquerade as exemplars of tolerance, civility and compassion have no room in their hearts for forgiveness.
The immediate response to this, of course is-- radical display of hate and intolerance? Are you talking about your brother's behavior? No, he is not. He is honestly saying that hateful and intolerant liberals are refusing to accept Rush Limbaugh's apology because they "want his scalp," and this is ironic given how much liberals like to talk about tolerance and compassion and stuff.

I would like to meet the liberal-- the anyone-- who defines tolerance and compassion as being nice to people who act like bigoted assholes for twenty years and then offer a backhanded apology for it once their sponsors start to pull out. No, when liberals advocate for tolerance and compassion, what they're advocating is for people to stop being vocally bigoted, especially to stop legislating their bigotry. You can be a bigot, but behind closed doors please. Stop pretending that the sight of a gay couple holding hands somehow damages your psyche and grow up. There are still Americans who haven't yet grown up and accepted the sight of an interracial couple holding hands, but we're making progress. Tolerance is recognizing that what people are, if they're consenting adults and aren't harming anyone, is not your business. Compassion, in this context, means not foisting your private moral disapproval on them by attempting to outlaw what they are, or at least the expression of what they are. Acceptance would be not disapproving in the first place, but people don't have a lot of control over what they accept. Acceptance is a feeling, and it's unfair to try and dictate peoples' feelings.  They can certainly, however, change their behavior.

Back to Rush Limbaugh. People are condemning him because of what he did, which was express bigotry against someone for who she is. Some people are taking the low road and making fun of his weight, yes, but the slams against him are not in general about immutable or semi-immutable traits. When you attack who someone is, you are by extension attacking everyone who shares the relevant trait in common. In calling Sandra Fluke a slut for wanting birth control, Rush called every woman who wants birth control a slut. And "every woman who wants birth control," in the U.S., is nearly all of us. Birth control is fundamental to womens' freedom and autonomy. In order to lead successful and independent lives, we need to be able to be sexually active without getting pregnant. That is why the war on birth control is being characterized as a war on women. In supporting it, especially by deeming it appropriate to insult and impugn the moral character of every woman who has used birth control, Rush attacked women for who they are. That is intolerant.

Refusing to be nice to individual people who have behaved abominably, especially intolerantly, is not intolerant. Tolerance has never been about being nice to individuals; it has been about respecting the autonomy and interests of groups. Every time a conservative attempts to conflate these two by whining about those liberals being so hypocritical by being mean to a bigot, a dittohead gets his wings.

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