Monday, March 5, 2012

When "Sorry, didn't mean it" Doesn't Work Anymore

In the Christian bible, there's a story about a woman who had a "hemorrhage" for 12 years.  That means she had female problems and bled for 12 years, making her unclean.  Now I don't need a show of hands from you for how many women out there have an embarrassing period story.  And I can bet there's plenty of men who would pay money not to hear those stories told.  But the story of the woman with a hemorrhage who touched Jesus' cloak wasn't about healing.

It was about shame.  It was about being cast off, and then re-claimed as a full human being into community.

Plenty of people out there are talking about Rush Limbaugh's half-baked "apology" to Sandra Fluke, the young woman he called a slut and a prostitute on a national media platform.

By now I'm guessing that everyone has heard that Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut because she wants her insurance to cover her birth control prescription.  Apparently, Limbaugh believes that he is her doctor, and thus feels he is qualified to pass medical and moral judgement on her.  As the backlash continues, he now wants us to believe that he feels sorry for calling her a slut and a prostitute in public.

This isn't a story about a foolish old man using incomplete information to pass unfair judgement on a young woman he doesn't know.  The fact that we are discussing prescription birth control in a political field, to me, means that we are once again seeking ways to shame women for their reproductive system.  That is a tale as old as time itself.  It was a damnable story then, and it remains so today.

Let's take a minute- because some girl has to stand up for the other girls- and point out that many girls- virgins, even!- are prescribed birth control pills to help with female disorders.  The woman with a hemorrhage who bled for 12 years isn't a myth.  Dysmenorrhea (bleeding too much).  Irregular cycles.  Horrible cramps.  Acne.  PMS.  Birth control pills and their low levels of hormones have been helping young women to deal with these problems for years.  Even today, a woman can actually have a period that lasts for months at a time if she is not getting proper treatment.

Birth control prescriptions are one way that thousands of women with "female problems" reclaimed their lives.  The fact that they can wear white pants and walk down the street without being labeled "unclean" is a gift of science.  The fact that we allow them to wear white pants and walk down the street in open society is a gift that Christian people ought to have from their faith: Jesus simply reclaimed the unclean woman.  She was freed from her shame.

But my biggest problem?

Limbaugh's "apology" sounds suspiciously like  "I didn't really mean it".  Oh, give me a break.  He's been in the public eye for years and years.  He's a professional on the radio.  I'm a little small-city priest, and I know that words have power.

Words have power to shame or to reclaim.

As a priest, I'm aware that I'm a public figure, whether I like it or not, despite my stage fright.  And thus, I mean every damn word I say in public- sermons, newsletters, blog posts, emails, Facebook posts.  "I didn't realize this word could insult you" and "I didn't really mean it" is never a valid excuse for a public figure.  When your words are put out in the public domain, you have no excuse but to mean everything you say.

To say "My choice of words was not the best" and "I was trying to be funny" is public speaking malpractice.  We've all at times tried a joke that fell flat or massaged our words because the audience hears them in ways you hadn't fully intended... but Limbaugh is a professional, and words like "slut" and "prostitute" are cheap shots. "I was trying to be funny" also falls flat.  I tried that once, in 4th grade.  At the time, I had a terrible lisp and got into a shoving match with a little boy.  Angry, I screamed loudly, "You're a sucker!  You suck! You suck!  You're a big fat sucker!"  Sadly for me, my "S" sounds at the time came out more like "F" sounds.  It ended badly, with me in detention in tears.  "I was trying to be funny" didn't fly then, either.  (Of course, what mean teacher keeps a kid with a lisp for an hour after school?  Especially when the lisping child simply cannot explain why she cannot enunciate the "S" sound.  But I digress.)

"I was trying to be humorous" is a child's excuse, and it has no place in the public eye, coming from a person whose job is to be on the radio discoursing opinions.  Oh, no.  He meant what he said.  He meant to call Sandra Fluke denigrating names.  He meant to use that violent language to villify someone he'd never met, who was asking to have her insurance cover a medication she is taking for reasons best discussed between her doctor and herself... and certainly not reasons to which Limbaugh is privy.  No, he intended to use the language he chose.

He intended to insult and shame her.  He meant to attempt to hijack her right to her own medical decisions, and he meant to make her ashamed because she is a young woman.

This is what I see going on here.  Systemic violence towards women in action and language is old, old news.  Violence starts with language, and it's simply not appropriate.  It's not appropriate on the playground when we are nine.  It's not appropriate when we are grown-ups.  It's not appropriate coming off the radio.  In the Christian bible, we have a story about a man we claim as our Messiah who put a stop to shaming.  Quite frankly, if you claim Christianity, that is the sort of behavior I expect from you.

It's a high bar.  I'll give you a moment to crane your neck.

So I hope this backlash continues.  I hope Limbaugh continues to lose sponsors.  I hope people keep speaking up in support of Sandra Fluke.  I hope the President keeps calling women on their personal cell phones to tell them they have his support.  I hope that someone, someday, reassures me that I have support, as a woman, to exist. I hope we allow the calmer heads of science to continue to help women live better lives.  I hope we have the poetry of our faith to lend conviction to our use of science.

And I hope that people of faith lift their voices to reclaim all people into the beloved community.


Tony said...

Rush was wrong. That being said...
The scripture you refer to would be a great parallel to Flukes testimony if she were talking about a medical condition. While she does mention the plight of her gay friend that suffers from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, what she is really talking about is that she and other female students like her want their sexual activities subsidized and to have a sort of sexual insurance.

It costs $23,000 to attend Georgetown Law. Are we to be led to believe that a young woman with the resources to pay that tuition can't afford birth control? unny how the same side that cries ‘Get your rosaries off my ovaries’ is the same side saying, ‘on second thought…please pay for me to have all the sex I want!’ The people who espouse ‘pro-choice’ ‘values’ are the same people who say religious institutions have no right to choose.”

I advocate the most affordable, accessible, and effective birth control available: if you don’t want to conceive a baby, simply stay abstinent and don’t get married right now. It’s not unrealistic, although many people have been culturally conditioned to think that it is unrealistic.
Fluke states that female Georgetown students struggle financially because the birth control they need is too expensive to be acquired. I guess abstinence is not an option?

Keith V said...

Thank you for these great words Betsy!

Tony - I am curious to know whether you think Georgetown should stop subsidizing Viagra? Unlike birth control it's only purpose is to allow men to be sexually functional. Perhaps abstinence is a possibility for them as well?

James Jacenich said...

It's easy to judge others, and so unnecessary and uncaring. As I read your message, I looked for the feelings behind the story. Who am I to judge when there is so much suffering? Who am I to criticize when there is so much pain. The first step to compassion and understanding is to llsten.

k bagioni said...

Tony, the issue is not about the use of medication, it is about a public figure using his bully pulpit to shame someone because they profess a different point of view. Betsy is right. As a professional rabble rouser for years, and a very good one, he chose his words carefully. And, then tried to make nice by trying to retract them. Wink, Wink, Wink.
He got exactly what he wanted . . . publicity.

Peggy said...

This is the best thing I've read on this subject. Betsy you are a master wordsmith especially because you mean what you say and your words come from the heart. Thank you for having the wisdom and maturity to say it so well.

Joyce Kai said...

Susan Campbell's Sunday column on this was much more edgy than yours. This is a little too "out there" and abrasive for my taste, but I did get a couple of really good laughs from it.,0,3153692.column

Anonymous said...

Insurance is paid for by the insureds and their employers. The issue is whether the coverage is offered in the policy not who pays for it. Is that hard for you to understand? Retail costs for prescription drugs are frightful...