The politics of insult

Ad hominem nastiness obscures important issues

Two odd insults have been in the news recently, both of them from the right because, at least at a national level, liberals currently have the luxury of sitting back to watch the circus. The slurs were two of many, but they were exemplary.

First, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum called President Barack Obama a “snob” because, Santorum said, “He wants everybody to go to college.”

Then, pundit Rush Limbaugh called a law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” because she said that her school’s health-insurance plan should pay for contraception. Limbaugh’s rant only grew exponentially more bizarre: “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something. We want you to post the videos online, so we can all watch.”

There is so much wrong with that, it is hard to know where to begin. Politics aside, however, two ideas invite analysis.

The first is that, in their extreme hyperbole, those attacks target millions of ordinary people. Obama had not said that every young person in the country ought to have a four-year degree; he advocated career preparation, including technical school. That seems like a reasonable goal, and it aligns with the aspirations of most parents for their children. College graduates are not all unemployed liberal arts majors – or unemployed former U.S. senators. The skills they have learned are essential to their communities and their country.

They treat patients, teach students, manage industries, command military forces and contribute to scientific understanding. All those are good things.

So is the ability to conceive only those children one can adequately raise.

The overpopulation and famine of Third World countries illustrate that point. For Limbaugh to equate contraceptive use with sexual irresponsibility is, in itself, irresponsible.

Both education and contraception are, in fact, issues of personal responsibility, which is a value widely promoted by people with whom Santorum and Limbaugh are in agreement, as well as nearly everyone else.

The second question is why personal slurs are accepted in polite society.

What makes them an effective weapon in an election year?

Limbaugh could have made several persuasive arguments against requiring insurers to pay for contraception. Others have. He then could have engaged in reasoned discussion with listeners who might have held different opinions.

Santorum could have criticized Obama about many legitimate points without invoking the spectral bogeyman of the “intellectual elite.” (One more time: Thinking is good.)

Instead, they indulged in name-calling.

It is easy to see why Santorum believes Obama feels superior. Santorum likely will never be the president of the United States. “Snob” is a fairly harmless word, for all that it must have been carefully chosen to suggest that some people should remember their place.

“Slut” and “prostitute” are beyond the bounds not only of civility but of decency. Used against a young woman who, whatever her opinion, was willing to take a public stand to influence public policy, they also discourage participation.

Dissenting voices keep democracy alive. Limbaugh, Santorum and all the others who jeer rather than debate have the same right to dissent, but they, especially, need to do it with civility and with the goal of furthering understanding, not destroying opponents.