On today’s Diane Rehm Show, Terry O’Neill President of the National Organization of Women squared off with conservative commentator Phyllis Schaflay. (I know right — its like a powder keg waiting to explode — the podcast of the show is here.) One of the many points of discussion was the impact of the Republican Congress and the Candidates on the contraception discussion as it has evolved over the past few weeks. Of key interest was the Rush Limbaugh comments from a week ago in which Limbaugh labeled Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown Law Student as a “slut” and “prostitute” because of her testimony before congress on the importance of employers paying for contraceptives. [Note: I am not linking to Rush Limbaugh's site out of respect for Ms. Fluke and the disrespect paid to her by Mr. Limbaugh].
I have been a little surprised that I have not seen more references to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale linking Rush Limbaugh and the Presidential candidates to the tale. Clearly the denomination of women as economic tools or as promiscuous beings is an attempt to dehumanize women. We see the same category of dehumanization in the labeling of women as feminists. Schaflay for example described the feminist agenda as one to destroy marriage and decry the role of women who chose to be house wives. By labeling women beyond their human characters and associating them with some “non-human” objective, like sex, money trade, and working, the labelers lessen their value and their message. We need not listen to them because they lost their investment in the greater human enterprise long ago. Moreover, in the Handmaid’s universe, we better understand them by grouping them together in homogenous groupings. By labeling people, we define the qualities we believe render people more human (and I would argue as well, within our theological frameworks, by implication we also assert the qualities that tend to render them more divine — no one ever has a vision of Jesus that strays very far from what they themselves look like).
In that regard, I recalled a not-s0-recent interview with Margaret Atwood published in Critique Magazine in 1997. The question asks Atwood if she agreed with the Flannary O’Connor quote that “people without hope do not write novels.”
Atwood: Yes, that’s true. Well, I think there’s a human paradox, which is that hell is what you often get when you try to impose heaven. The key word is “impose.” I don’t think that, subject as we are to the laws of chemistry and physics, we are ever going to have “a perfect world”–by that I mean one in which no one ever dies, everybody is happy all the time, nobody ever gets sick, everything always goes well. We can’t hope for that. What we can hope for is human cooperation, and this is what is different from the word “impose.” So I think that you only can get something better when you don’t try to take a kind of cookie cutter and stamp out a limited idea, or one person’s idea, or one group’s idea of what is convenient.
It seems, taking Atwood a little further, as we begin to conscript the moral vision in “cookie cutter swaths,” we become embroiled into a game of labeling, minimization, and ultimately dehumanizing — ultimately sorting out those that are worthy to participate in the creation of the moral vision that society should adopt, and the dehumanizing of those who are less capable or worthy of shaping the vision of the world we would like to see fulfilled.
In short, in a community built upon the central role of dialogue, one way of making one’s message more prominent is to disassociate the alternative message from a hopeful reality — that is what Limbaugh has done. He has converted Sandra Fluke from a woman with a problem, to a problem as a woman.