by: Valerie Elverton-Dixon on March 8th, 2012 | Comments Off
When radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” who ought to post sex videos on-line, he not only revealed his own crass, crude ignorance, but he committed acts of verbal abuse. His comments were a kind of violence against women.
Violence is a violation. It is a hurtful demonstration of a basic lack of respect. Those of us who are concerned about intimate violence, violence in personal relationships, tell our sisters and brothers to walk away from a partner the moment they call you out of your name. Verbal abuse is often prelude to physical abuse. If a person will call you a “slut”, s/he will hit you, and if a person will hit you, s/he will kill you. Such relationships are not only toxic, they are tragic.
In his book “Violence”, philosopher Slavoj ZiZek describes subjective and objective violence. Subjective violence is “violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent” (1). Objective violence is that which is symbolic and systemic. Symbolic violence is the violence embedded in language, and systemic violence– a.k.a. structural violence – is the various violations of human dignity that are embedded in our political-economy.
According to Zizek, subjective violence “is experienced as such against the background of the ‘normal’ peaceful state of things. However, objective violence is precisely the violence inherent in this ‘normal’ peaceful state of things” (2). Rush Limbaugh’s comments calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” were “irrational explosions of subjective violence” that become all too rational when they are seen to spring from the ground of objective symbolic violence that allows it.
It is the way we are accustomed to think about women that makes such verbal abuse thinkable. The good news is that these ways of thinking are withering away as women and men demand equal rights and equal respect. Increasingly, this objective violence against women and against those who are perceived as weak is the violence we need to identify and to eradicate.
In an essay published at “On Faith”, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is correct to call attention to the complicity of religion in providing the objective ground for violence against women. In her essay, she observes of the GOP war against women: “This attack on women is, and I am grieved to say it, driven by a particular Christian theological perspective that denigrates women and holds them responsible for sin, particularly sexual sin.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/all-about-eve-the-christian-roots-of-the-gop-war-on-women/2012/03/01/gIQAymq0kR_blog.html)
Further, I say, in Jeremiah 13:22 the prophet uses the image of rape to warn the people about the coming wrath of God. “And if you say in your heart, ‘why have these things come upon me? It is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up, and you are violated.”
This misogynistic passage helps constitute an objective violence that seems to say that rape is a justifiable punishment for “the greatness of your iniquity.” First, it is paramount that we reject rape in all its forms for any reason. This includes proposed laws that would require unnecessary invasive medical procedures before a woman may obtain a legal abortion. I have written about such proposed laws elsewhere. (http://justpeacetheory.com/files/State_Rape.pdf)
Next, it is important to understand the objective violence that makes rape as punishment and the verbal assault that Rush Limbaugh and others have unleashed upon Sandra Fluke possible. Such violence is the violence that judges a woman as good or bad determined by whether or not she expresses her sexual self in socially acceptable ways. Such violence is also the violence of keeping women silent in the face of oppressive institutional power.
Sandra Fluke dared to speak out against the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She dared to speak out in support of a lesbian friend whose inability to afford and obtain contraceptive medicine for an ailment–which had nothing to do with prevention of pregnancy–that caused her friend needless suffering. The presence of women in the Congress allowed Sandra Fluke to have a voice. She refused to be silent and thus she was seen as a justifiable target for attack.
However, women and men will have no more of such violence. The response against such violence has said that we will not tolerate verbal abuse and that we will work to change the objective landscape that makes such possible.
Rush Limbaugh has issued a written apology on his web-site and he also apologized on his radio program. He said in part: “Those two words were inappropriate. They were uncalled for. They distracted from the point I was trying to make, and I again sincerely apologize. I do not think that she is either of those two words. I did not think last week that she is either of those two words.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/05/rush-limbaugh-apology-sandra-fluke-advertisers_n_1321450.html)
For many his apology is too little too late. I, however, have a suggestion. If Rush Limbaugh wants to make amends to Sandra Fluke, and to everyone else he offended with his remarks, he ought to use his large public platform to speak with experts on the issue of intimate violence and the objective symbolic and systemic structures that are the foundation of such violence.
This would not only remind us of the importance of maintaining civil discourse, but it would go a long way toward educating the public about the many facets of violence, including verbal abuse.