This guest post was authored by Antonio Golan, a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Indiana University.
Earlier this month Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that “would have allowed business owners to claim their religious beliefs as legal justification for refusing to serve same-sex couples or any other prospective customer.” Opposition to the bill came not only from the LGBT community and its supporters, but also from a seemingly unlikely source: corporate America. Behind this opposition is the public-relations nightmare that would potentially come along with doing high-profile business in a state with sexuality/gender-based Jim Crow laws. The National Football League, for example, felt compelled to come out against the law, and it has been speculated that they might move the 2014 Super Bowl out of Arizona if it were to pass (this threat is given certain weight by the fact that the NFL already did this back when the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday). The potential economic fallout from a corporate boycott of Arizona generated widespread rejection for all corners of the political spectrum, including some of the Republicans who actually voted for the bill (and then turned around and asked Brewer to veto it).
But where some conservatives saw a law that was impractical and economically detrimental (at best), Rush Limbaugh had a different take:
The governor of Arizona is being bullied. She is being bullied by the homosexual lobby in Arizona, and elsewhere. She is being bullied by the nationwide drive-by media. She is being bullied by certain elements of corporate America… in order to advance the gay agenda. I guess in that circumstance, bullying is admirable. In fact this kind of bullying is honorable.
It should be noted that Limbaugh, and many on the right (I’m looking at you Brit Hume), have a history of decrying America’s feminization and portraying manliness as something of an endangered species. Within this context, many have labeled anti-bullying activists as overprotective and accused them of making children soft, while claiming that being teased and picked on is simply a part of growing up. Note for example, the somewhat less-sensitive attitude toward bullying that Limbaugh took when Mitt Romney was accused of bullying a high school classmate who “could’ve been gay”:
You had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get razzed. It didn’t matter. They weren’t gonna think you were in the Beatles. If you had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get made fun of. See, 1965’s a great year; bullying was legal.
In labeling Brewer a bullying victim, Limbaugh is pointing to the supposed hypocrisy of those who label masculine experiences as “bullying,” while never acknowledging their own aggressive and coercive behavior. He is not only denying the victimization of the LGBT community, but actually appropriating its victimhood. For Limbaugh, the real victims aren’t the LGBT community, but rather those who are forced to treat them as equals.
The reason we should take notice of this (other than obvious), is that it is an example of a rhetorical maneuver often employed by those seeking to bring social change to a halt. We see it in accusations of reverse racism, in lamentations over the death of masculinity, in claims that it is no longer okay to speak English in the United States… (the list goes on). It isn’t enough to deny the victimhood of the oppressed, but rather the perpetrators must themselves take on the role of victims.
It should also be noted that this type of rhetoric has a rich history: Jews were a threat to Germany; black men were sexual threats to white women; Indians were a threat to civilization… (once again, the list goes on). Taking on the role of victim serves to justify the violence (broadly understood) that the oppressor enacts on the oppressed. Through the appropriation of victimhood, normally unacceptable treatment of certain people becomes, not only defensible, but the natural response to a threat.
What Limbaugh fails to acknowledge, however, is that when citizens put pressure on elected officials, it isn’t bullying, just democracy. More importantly, elected officials have more power than citizens, whereas bullying is predicated on the perpetrator having more power than his/her victim(s)—something that establishes an important link between bullying and more recognizable forms of social injustice.
While people like Limbaugh would have us reduce forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia to mere feelings of dislike, in reality, much like bullying, they are deeply rooted in power imbalances. Indeed, what are racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia if not forms of bullying (sometimes on a grand scale)? As the Jonathan Martin scandal reveals, bullying is often intertwined with these social injustices (in his case class and race). Further, we can see some parallels between Richie Incognito’s (the man who bullied Jonathan Martin) response to the accusations of bullying and those who, like Limbaugh, seek to appropriate the victimhood of those that suffer racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism. In a slew of Twitter rants, Incognito not only denied that his behavior constituted bullying, but actually began to portray himself as the victim in the whole ordeal. These responses often took an aggressive tone that revealed them to be an extension of the bullying Martin had already endured.
Admittedly, Rush Limbaugh is on the fringe of the political spectrum (note that even Bill O’Reilly has distanced himself from Limbaugh). Yet he often employs rhetorical moves that are found elsewhere in society. Thinking about social injustices through the lens of bullying might allow us to see old problems in a new light, and maybe even reveal new and more effective ways to deal them. If we were to do this, a good first step would be recognizing the appropriation of victimhood as a rhetorical maneuver employed by bullies as part of their bullying.