May 31, 2013

Does Case of Rush Limbaugh Hold Lessons For Atheist Community?

Rush Limbaugh booking photo from his arrest in...
Rush Limbaugh booking photo from his arrest in 2006. These charges were eventually dropped by the local prosecutor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When someone repeatedly spews the sort of divisive nonsense that can harm a community, we should ignore that person, right? The more we respond to such a person, the more we elevate him or her to the level of someone to whom attention should be paid. The more attention we pay, the more traffic we drive, and the more we increase the ad revenue he or she receives. By ignoring them, we deprive them of the attention they crave, and this is the way to reduce their influence, right? I know you have heard this argument many times. You have even heard it with reference to some in the atheist community.

Early in May, Wendy Gittleson (The Big Sauce) provided an interesting counterpoint to this common argument: the case of Rush Limbaugh. Gittleson noted that calls for those of us on the left to ignore Limbaugh never made much sense because there is almost no audience overlap between us and Limbaugh. She certainly has a point here. Limbaugh's audience would not know whether we were ignoring him or rebutting him because they would not be paying attention to us.

The real crux of Gittleson's argument, however, is based on the apparent relationship between the dramatic increase in people speaking out against Limbaugh since February of 2012 and the mass exodus of advertisers leaving his show. She suggests that we may hear less from him in the future as a result. In her mind, we have clear evidence that speaking out against Limbaugh, rather than ignoring him so as not to boost his popularity, has reduced his influence.

It is an interesting argument, but I'm not sure I buy it. You see, I' not completely convinced that what happened to Limbaugh really supports her conclusion. As she noted,
For almost three decades, Limbaugh’s brand of hate speech was no problem to his sponsors, his network or his stations. He became so popular that he dominated the talk radio market. He’s often on multiple times per day on multiple stations in big markets. He was the king of talk radio.
Right. So Limbaugh said all sorts of vile things for nearly 30 years in spite of numerous objections. It was not until he called Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" that public opinion against him reached critical mass and he begin to experience some negative consequences. The fact that it took this long seems to undermine at least part of Gittleson's argument. People were speaking out against Limbaugh long before 2012. Why did it not have an impact then?

Implications for the Atheist Community

I'm not sure it is reasonable to extrapolate from the Limbaugh case to other contexts, but I couldn't resist thinking about possible implications for those in the atheist community who are trying to determine how (or if) we should respond to those among us who are engaging in irrational thinking or divisive behavior.

The question of audience overlap is an interesting one because it seems to have changed dramatically over a fairly short time frame. Prior to the "great rift," it was fairly common for the atheists who read atheist blogs to read some of those found at Freethought Blogs as well as those found elsewhere. More recently, some have abandoned blogs hosted on Freethought Blogs completely, and others do not seem to venture far away from Freethought Blogs or Skepchick. Some atheists now gravitate toward the Atheism+ forums while others prefer the Slymepit (for those unfamiliar with the Slymepit, West Coast Atheist recently provided this description). It seems that the rift has reduced audience overlap quite a bit.

If Gittleson's analysis of the Limbaugh case is any indication, the reduced audience overlap would suggest that the common argument that we should ignore those atheists with whom we disagree or find divisive may be less potent today than it would have been a few years ago. If, for example, fans of Freethought Blogs are less likely to read material disagreeing with their favorite bloggers, the nature of such material may be less important. Thus, those who align themselves with "the other side" may be less likely to know whether you are responding to them or ignoring them than they once were. There is even a "block bot" that prevents those who use it from encountering information critical of their favorite blogs!

The issue of whether speaking out can produce meaningful change within the atheist community is more complex, and I think it may be premature to speculate much here. While the Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ faction has had some success in using public pressure to remove at least one opponent from a position, the extent of this power remains unclear. Maybe we will know more after the Board of the Center for Inquiry meets in June to decide whether to bow to demands that Ron Lindsay be removed from his leadership role. Even then, I am not sure we will know whether Limbaugh's case applies until we have a critical mass incident of our own that seems to be required to produce a large swing of public opinion.

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