Bill Maher, Rush Limbaugh, and the Standards of Discourse

Sure, he routinely uses gender-specific slurs against conservative women. But he's not a misogynist!

In an interview with Jake Tapper, comedian Bill Maher declares that “I’m a pottymouth, not a misogynist.” While he’s used the C-word in reference to Sarah Palin–as a recurring part of a standup act, he thinks it’s far different than calling Sandra Fluke a slut on a radio show.

To compare that to Rush is ridiculous – he went after a civilian about very specific behavior, that was a lie, speaking for a party that has systematically gone after women’s rights all year, on the public airwaves. I used a rude word about a public figure who gives as good as she gets, who’s called people “terrorist” and “unAmerican.” Sarah Barracuda. The First Amendment was specifically designed for citizens to insult politicians. Libel laws were written to protect law students speaking out on political issues from getting called whores by Oxycontin addicts.

I made essentially the same argument a while back in my post “Why Are People Mad At Rush Limbaugh When Liberals You’ve Never Heard of Are Jerks, Too?” and largely agree with Maher on the specific point. To the extent that name-calling is permissible in American politics, the standards are simply different for politicians and other major public figures than they are for “civilians.” Yes, Fluke is probably a public figure under the standards of New York Times v. Sullivan and subsequent Supreme Court defamation cases; but she’s simply not fair game in the way as Sarah Palin–a former half-term governor, vice presidential nominee, and presumptive presidential wannabee–is.

That said, as Melissa McEwan pointed out a while back, Maher has a history of using gender-specific slurs against women his disagrees with. [LANGUAGE WARNING]

Last week, I mentioned that Bill Maher had called Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” on his show. On the next episode, he called Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann “bimbos.” Then, Sunday night, during a comedy show in Dallas, he reportedlycalled Sarah Palin a “cunt,” because “there’s just no other word for her.”

Except twat and bimbo, of course.

Now, it’s no secret that I don’t like Bill Maher, who relies on deeply misogynist,routinely homophobicfat-hatingableisttransphobicxenophobicIslamophobicreligion-hating jokes, and is a one-man rape joke machine, and then wonders why it is that marginalized people in the US tend to disagree with his assertion that we’ve got it so good here; what the fuck are we complaining about?

Indeed. Look, I get that Maher considers himself “edgy” and in the mold of George Carlin. But he’s a 56-year-old man with an English degree from Cornell and an above average IQ. Surely, he knows some other words to express his disdain for the likes of Palin and Bachmann.

If forced to rank the two on the scale of human decency, I suppose I’d say Limbaugh’s transgressions were more foul than Maher’s. But, surely, that’s not the standard to which our public intellectuals ought aspire?

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Popular Culture, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. EddieInCA says:

    Another difference.

    Maher doesn’t have sponsors to worry about. HBO has no advertisers.

    As long as Maher draws and audience, he’s valuable to HBO.

    Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, and the rest are at the mercy of advertisers for their ability to make a buck.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: Yeah, although that cuts both ways. Rush is essentially self-employed, so long as he can find enough advertisers. HBO can easily decide, as ABC did, that Maher isn’t worth he embarrassment.

  3. Herb says:

    I think it’s sad that in a discussion about Rush Limbaugh’s misogyny we have to even mention Bill Maher. They didn’t implement the fairness doctrine when I wasn’t looking, did they?

  4. beth says:

    Maher does have a point about being just a pottymouth. As a woman, I’ve never seen what the huge outrage over the c word is – what’s the difference if you call a man a d**k or call someone an a**hole? There’s no action implied to the word. It’s just a vile way of telling someone you don’t like them or think they’re a jerk. However, calling someone a thief or pedophile or even a slut or prostitute implies that said person is engaging in that specific behavior and is much more egregious than just nasty name calling. That’s why Limbaugh’s rant bothered me so much more than Maher’s.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    Bill Maher seems to be a potty mouth whose choice of words strongly suggests he’s got a mysoginistic streak (and other unsavory treaks as well). And he’s been called on it, and has refused to change.

    So yeah, screw Bill Maher.

    It bothers me not at all to say the above. No big deal.

  6. Jay says:

    One can certainly make the case that Mike Malloy is a “Who?’ reference when it comes to double standards with regard to discourse, but that is not the case with Maher.

    First of all, I do want to salute Maher’s balls. Because he has quite a pair to complain about Rush lying, when he himself is lying when he says Republicans have “systematically gone after women’s rights all year.”

    Secondly, Bill Maher is not just some average liberal who is just a “comedian” that tells tasteless jokes. Maher routinely appears on top political news shows like ‘This Week’, ‘The Situation Room’, ‘Hardball’, and others. He doesn’t go on to tell jokes. I don’t see Dane Cook or David Cross appearing on those shows.

    In addition, there is the $1 million donation Maher has made to Barack Obama’s Super-Pac.

    He’s no small player.

    Prominent Democrats, including DNC chairperson Debbie-Wasserman Schultz has appeared on his show and Axelrod was scheduled to appear, but dropped the appearances only because of the recent heat Maher has been taking.

    And I’m sorry, this notion that it’s “different” because Sarah Palin was a VP candidate and Governor is complete hogwash.

    If Dennis Miller were to call Hillary Clinton a “cunt” or Barbara Boxer a “dumb twat” at any time for any reason, the outcry would be measured on the richter scale and he wouldn’t be able to slide with the, “But I’m just a comedian” excuse.

    So yes Virginia, double standards do exist.

  7. Andy Gaboury says:

    I think a comedian calling a female politician a cunt or twat is akin to calling a male one a dick or asshole. Just because a term has connotations towards one gender rather than another doesn’t make it sexist. Limbaugh says any woman engaging in Fluke’s behavior is a slut or prostitute. Maher isn’t saying every female politician is a twat or cunt.

    Maher, while edgy and inflammatory, was denigrating Palin and Bachmann because he disagreed with their politics or intelligence levels as individuals. Limbaugh’s comments were in a different league because he portrayed Fluke as an example of all women that engage in sexual intercourse. Maybe the line is fine, but it exists.

  8. Andy Gaboury says:

    @Jay:
    Maher is brought on those shows to give a comedic slant to the politics of the day because he does political humor. No one at the DNC, Meet the Press or CNN is asking him about delegate counts and platform revisions. When Wolf Blitzer needs someone to discuss Burger King drive thrus, he calls Dane Cook.

  9. Console says:

    I agree with Beth. Hell, you can add jerk-off, prick, dickhead to the list. I’m not one to pretend all words carry equal weight (you can call a man or a woman a bitch, but doing the latter is more insulting) but at the same time that cuts both ways. Sexist terms related to men may not have the impact of sexist terms related to women, but in the grand scheme of things, not all sexist terms related to women carry the weight that something like nigger or faggot would.

    Plus the issue is salient too. Rush was calling someone a slut in the context of a debate on birth control. Rush is treading in far deeper waters than just word choice in this case. That’s part of why we shouldn’t let people get away with making false equivalences. Because it turns a genuinely problematic worldview into a grammar lesson.

  10. Console says:

    I agree with Beth. Hell, you can add jerk-off, prick, d***head to the list. I’m not one to pretend all words carry equal weight (you can call a man or a woman a bitch, but doing the latter is more insulting) but at the same time that cuts both ways. Sexist terms related to men may not have the impact of sexist terms related to women, but in the grand scheme of things, not all sexist terms related to women carry the weight that something like n****** or f***** would.

    Plus the issue is salient too. Rush was calling someone a slut in the context of a debate on birth control. Rush is treading in far deeper waters than just word choice in this case. That’s part of why we shouldn’t let people get away with making false equivalences. Because it turns a genuinely problematic worldview into a grammar lesson.

  11. Fiona says:

    If forced to rank the two on the scale of human decency, I suppose I’d say Limbaugh’s transgressions were more foul than Maher’s. But, surely, that’s not the standard to which our public intellectuals ought aspire?

    Wow. You consider Maher and Limbaugh public intellectuals? I think that’s giving them way too much credit.

    I do agree with the main point of your argument though. While I’d prefer Maher find some other way to refer to the Sarah Palins of the political world than using the “c” word, which is far more powerful than asshole or dick, his barbs were aimed at a specific politician, whereas Limbaugh insulted pretty much any woman who uses contraceptives and would like to see them covered by insurance. Limbaugh’s whole schtick is outrage and insult. Maher does have something to add to the debate and certainly treats the conservative guests whom he invites to his show with far more respect than Limbaugh, Hannity, or other members of the rightwing commentariat treat liberals.

  12. Franklin says:

    Both guys are entertainers.

  13. Herb says:

    @Jay:

    “So yes Virginia, double standards do exist.”

    Yeah, they sure do. The left are hypocrites because they slam Rush Limbaugh but don’t slam Bill Maher.

    And the right are hypocrites because they slam Bill Maher but don’t slam Rush Limbaugh.

    Hypocrites, all.

    (Whenever I hear talk of hypocrisy, I always think of that Beastie Boys song. “My pops caught me smoking and he said NO WAY/ That hypocrite smokes two packs a day.” Is Pops really a hypocrite? Or has Pops learned his lesson about the dangers of smoking and doesn’t want to see his son repeat it? In other words, it’s easy to call a seeming contradiction “hypocrisy,” but that don’t make it hypocrisy.)

  14. Moderate Mom says:

    Reading the comments, it’s obvious that the hair splitting continues apace.

    Why can’t we all just agree that calling a woman, any woman, a slut, a whore, a prostitute, a c**t, a twat, a bimboo, or any other gender specific insult is just wrong. Defending yourself by asserting that you are a “comic” or and “entertainer” is just trying to weasel out of the indefensible.

    Bill Maher is not funny and Rush Limbaugh is not entertaining. I’d just like this whole contremps to go away.

  15. David M says:

    @Jay:

    [Maher] himself is lying when he says Republicans have “systematically gone after women’s rights all year.”

    Calling that bland of a statement a lie is just foolish. Also, prominent Republicans appear on his show, so your complaint about Democrats appearing on his show doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Even though I think most of the right wing complaints about Maher are crap, I basically agree with Rob in CT.

  16. mantis says:

    @Jay:

    Because he has quite a pair to complain about Rush lying, when he himself is lying when he says Republicans have “systematically gone after women’s rights all year.”

    Lying by omission maybe. Republicans have gone after women’s rights for decades.

    Maher routinely appears on top political news shows like ‘This Week’, ‘The Situation Room’, ‘Hardball’, and others. He doesn’t go on to tell jokes.

    Actually, he does go on to tell jokes.

    Prominent Democrats, including DNC chairperson Debbie-Wasserman Schultz has appeared on his show

    Many prominent Republicans go on his show too. So what?

    And I’m sorry, this notion that it’s “different” because Sarah Palin was a VP candidate and Governor is complete hogwash.

    So public officials and celebrities are exactly the same as normal Joes and Janes? I don’t think so.

    If Dennis Miller were to call Hillary Clinton a “cunt” or Barbara Boxer a “dumb twat” at any time for any reason, the outcry would be measured on the richter scale and he wouldn’t be able to slide with the, “But I’m just a comedian” excuse.

    If Dennis Miller says anything, no one pays attention at all. It would be measured about a 0.1 magnitude on the richter scale. He could easily slide, back into obscurity, with no excuse at all.

    And FWIW, I can’t stand Bill Maher. I think he’s a largely unfunny boor who believes he’s an expert on things about which he is in fact clueless. I think his jokes about Palin and Bachmann were offensive and tasteless. If people want to attack him, fine, but he’s not the equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. He’s a comedian who hosts a show that on a good day gets a little more than 1 million viewers. Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party. He sets the agenda for them. He has an enormous and loyal following and the most popular talk radio show in the country, with more than 15 million listeners per week. Republicans who have criticized him in the past have been forced to grovel and beg forgiveness for doing so. None of these things are remotely true of Maher.

  17. mantis says:

    @David M:

    Why can’t we all just agree that calling a woman, any woman, a slut, a whore, a prostitute, a c**t, a twat, a bimboo, or any other gender specific insult is just wrong.

    Agreed.

  18. Moosebreath says:

    In the words of William Styron (but not about any female relevant to this discussion), “I’d call her a c**t, but she lacks both the depth and the charm.”

    On this discussion, I’d second Fiona’s comments.

  19. mantis says:

    Oops, my last was a response to Moderate Mom, not David M.

  20. David M says:

    @mantis: I agreed with the quote, so I wasn’t too worried about it, but yes, Moderate Mom said it first.

  21. Jim Treacher says:

    Oh, James. “Half-term governor”? Dead giveaway.

  22. Rob in CT says:

    @Moderate Mom:

    I’m onboard. Unlike some of the others above, I do think c*nt and tw*t are loaded in ways that ahole and prick aren’t. Perhaps that too is hairsplitting…

    “I think Sarah Palin is an awful person.” There, that’s a way of saying it, without using a misogynistic slur. It doesn’t have the shock value, of course, which is the problem for guys like Maher (and Limbaugh, who is at heart a shock jock).

    I don’t draw a 1:1 equivalence here, but who cares? Maher’s full of it here, and it shouldn’t be hard to just call a spade a spade.

    But then I suppose that’s easy for me to say, as I don’t watch Maher’s show and thus have no emotional investment. I have HBO and have flicked past his show a couple of times. I think I tried watching for 30 seconds or so once, and that’s all that I needed to be turned off.

  23. EMRVentures says:

    Rush Limbaugh has the largest radio show in the country, five days a week on hundreds of public stations. His reach and influence on American politics are enormous. Bill Maher, having been kicked off the public airwaves already for his antics, labors after 11 on weekends on HBO. His audience is small and his influence does not reach outside his timeslot, whatever other talkshows he appears on (make that appeared, as he’s dead to them now.)

    If Rush Limbaugh were relegated to a once-a-week, late-night show on a pay channel, no one would do much huffing about the stuff he says. If Rush Limbaugh didn’t have politicians kowtowing and apologizing to him because they are afraid to risk his wrath, no one would care much that he’s a turd. If Rush Limbaugh were Bill Maher, the left would be ignoring him the way they ignore Bill Maher. But he’s not.

    The same company in New York, ABC, that fired Bill Maher leaves Rush Limbaugh on the public airwaves. THAT’S the double standard and that’s why there’s been a fuss.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Treacher: Giveaway to what? I was writing posts like “Sarah Palin, Ignoramus” in October 2008. I think she’s an utter joke as a presidential aspirant. But this post nonetheless argues that it’s beyond the pale to use gender-based slurs in attacking her.

  25. Herb says:

    @Jim Treacher:

    Oh, James. “Half-term governor”? Dead giveaway.

    A dead giveaway for what? Accuracy?

    (Although to be fair, Palin did serve a little over half her term, so in the interest of accuracy, maybe we should call her a 3/5s term governor. Nah….half-term will do.)

  26. Indeed. Look, I get that Maher considers himself “edgy” and in the mold of George Carlin.

    Speaking of offensive statements, putting Bill Maher anywhere close to the same level as George Carlin offends me greatly.

  27. paladin says:

    Gee James, will this be your argument when you explain to your daughters why it’s okey-dokey for some men to call women obscenities but not others? Isn’t this basically what Obama is teaching Sasha and Melia?

    Shouldn’t the standard be that if it’s wrong for one it’s wrong for all?

  28. Hey Norm says:

    There is no place in the public discourse for Maher’s comment…and I say that as someone who is an occasional Maher viewer…and someone who abhors the presence of Palin (and those like her) in the political discourse.
    Having said that…comparing Maher to Limbaugh is intellectually dishonest. Limbaugh is the de facto leader of the Republican Party. With great power comes responsibility.

  29. James Joyner says:

    @paladin: Did you read the post? I specifically decry Maher’s use of that language. What I do say is that I agree with him that using it against a public official is relatively less offensive than using it against someone who isn’t in the fray.

  30. mantis says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Speaking of offensive statements, putting Bill Maher anywhere close to the same level as George Carlin offends me greatly.

    Agreed.

  31. Hey Norm says:

    “…Oh, James. “Half-term governor”? Dead giveaway…”

    How about Quitter? Abdicator of Responsibility?

  32. steve says:

    Maher is an ass. Limbaugh is an ass. Limbaugh has a bigger audience. If I had my druthers, such language would not be used on air to describe any woman. As a second choice, I would limit it to politicians and other pundits.

    Steve

  33. Commonist says:

    You donate one million to Obama, who unlike the republicans don’t want to go after women’s health and rights, and you can call all my female relatives whatever you want on national television.

  34. anjin-san says:

    How about Quitter? Abdicator of Responsibility?

    Bailer on sworn duty? Back stabber of those who trusted her with their votes?

    I’m not a fan of using c**t in any context.It’s not funny, just offensive. But then I never did find Maher to be very funny.

  35. An Interested Party says:

    …he himself is lying when he says Republicans have “systematically gone after women’s rights all year.”

    Yes, of course, because these abortion-related laws in the states being pushed by Republicans that would force women to do things against their will certainly have nothing at all to do with women’s rights…

  36. michael reynolds says:

    Interesting issue.

    My wife doesn’t see what the big deal is about “c-nt.” She doesn’t find it particularly offensive.

    My position is that it’s not the word but the intention. I can do a whole lot more damage with the words “fat” or “ugly” than might be done with “c-nt.” It’s about the intention, not the arrangement of letters. That’s why if I were to call a guy “n-gger” it’s a very different matter than Mark Twain using the same word.

    Maher is unfunny. That’s his crime. He’s a comedian who has forgotten that he’s doing comedy. He’s started to buy his own inflated self-image. His use of “c-nt” is just a symptom of his inability to actually be funny.

    Limbaugh attacked a civilian. He did it over the course of at least three, three-hour shows. He was not attempting humor, he was attempting character assassination for partisan political reasons. Maher may be a misogynist — I get that vibe, too — but he’s not setting out to ruin innocent bystanders.

    Had Limbaugh taken a single shot at Fluke I’d shrug it off. But he set out to deliberately destroy her. It’s not accidental collateral damage, he deliberately took aim at a civilian. That’s why it’s different.

  37. bandit says:

    @michael reynolds: Are you out of your mind?

  38. An Interested Party says:

    Are you out of your mind?

    Heh, that’s amusing coming from you…

  39. Moderate Mom says:

    @Commonist:

    You remind me of that old joke that ends with the punchline “Madame, we’ve already ascertained what you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

  40. In fact, it´s more complicated. There is an important difference here: several liberals complained about Maher misogyny and about his positions about Muslims. Michael Steele, while running the RNC, had to apologize to Rush for calling him an “entertainer”.

  41. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, I believe that if we have to put them on a scale of vileness, Rush’s three day spittle-mouthed tirade against a civilian is worse than the specific incidents cited here about Maher. But, to me, the deeper point is that Maher and Limbaugh are cut front he same cloth. Way overly impressed with themselves, their success amounts to satisfying the meanest and smallest urges in our humanity by hoisting themselves onto a stage and bitch-slapping people they deem inferior. Never mind their arguments or analysis, or in Maher’s case, the jokes. Those are just stage props for the real product: universal contempt.

  42. Robert in SF says:

    I think that a public figure (Rush/Maher) can use whatever language they want…
    It’s the message that sells the offensiveness…not the vocabulary.

    Maher has made his case against Sarah Palin, and from what I have read has a grand total of two or three times called her a… “distasteful” word. It summed up his feelings on the matter, not the facts.

    Rush made his case entirely based on the concept that his word choice was actual fact, that the person he was assailing was actually a slut or whore…not just an insulting word choice, but an insulting message, an attempt to persuade people on the fact that she was one of those in real life.

    To compare the two uses of an inflammatory term is intellectual dishonesty. They are not equivalent, and barely comparable. The are not the same scenarios, the same intentions, or the same message.

    Who here hasn’t said a word, phrase, or statement of a concept either in a fit of anger, or in a spontaneous verbal confrontation that wasn’t nice, polite, or accurate, but summed up our feelings on a matter, if not the literal facts?

    And when you want to call someone misogynistic, you have to make you case on the total history of their message…not on their word choice. That’s not strong enough to make your case, and the resultant crying wolf reputation weakens your credibility to identify true misogynists….I don’t think every use by a straight person of the slur “f*gg*t” is by definition homophobic or gay bashing, or calling for the removal of gay people from the public square.

  43. WR says:

    @michael reynolds: In England, the “c word” is used the way we use asshole here.

  44. @WR:

    In England, the “c word” is used the way we use asshole here.

    Not unless you routinely consider asshole to be one of the most obscene words in the language, it isn’t. “Cunt” is considered very offensive, even while it is used on a daily basis; it is more or less offensive depending upon context (among male friends in certain social groups it can be hardly offensive at all, for example), and is not a specifically gendered insult.

  45. The Olde Man says:

    Actually what happened is that a word disappeared from our language. And that word is ‘slut’ defined as ‘a sexually promiscuous’ woman. It is not possible to be sexually promiscuous anymore, what one is is ‘sexually active”. Consequently, the term ‘slut’ no longer exists.

    Rush used a word that no longer has meaning leading to all kinds of confusion. No wonder he got into trouble.

  46. WR says:

    @That Other Mike: “Not unless you routinely consider asshole to be one of the most obscene words in the language, it isn’t. “Cunt” is considered very offensive, even while it is used on a daily basis; it is more or less offensive depending upon context (among male friends in certain social groups it can be hardly offensive at all, for example), and is not a specifically gendered insult. ”

    So what you’re saying is the word is considered very offensive except when it isn’t. In other wods, like “asshole” or “prick” here. I don’t understand why you think you’re disagreeing.

  47. @WR: Ah, deliberate obtuseness. “Cunt” is only ever not offensive to the most taboo degree in a tiny number of situations. Don’t be cretinous, it’s not a good look for anybody.