Why Rush Limbaugh’s Apology Fails


Rush Limbaugh continues to hemorrhage sponsors and at least two radio stations as the controversy over his personal attack on Sandra Fluke continues. Whether you like Rush Limbaugh or not — and frankly I don’t – this is an interesting case study in offense and apology. When Limbaugh’s apology is measured by the benchmarks of moral apology, it fails abjectly. Let’s take a look at why, and what could have been different.

In her book, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Acknowledgment, Reconciliation, and the Politics of Sustainable Peace, Trudy Govier, a professor of philosophy, says that moral apology differs from defense of one’s actions, or excuse or explanation of one’s actions. Most of us have both received and offered an excusing or explanatory apology: “Sorry I’m late, the traffic was terrible” is a common example.

But moral apology is required when someone has been harmed or injured either physically, emotionally, or socially. Limbaugh obviously crossed the line of cultural decency in his personal attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Name-calling as an ad hominem attack is not new, but it does move the discussion of any topic away from the issue and on to a personal level. Limbaugh clearly did that, which even he acknowledged.

But acknowledgment in moral apology is not the only step in the process. Govier identifies eight steps in moral apology:

  1. Acknowledges wrongful acts. The offender admits to committing wrongful acts. Limbaugh did admit to calling Sandra Fluke outrageous names in a personal assault on her character.
  2. Expresses remorse for those acts. The offender expresses genuine remorse for the offending acts. Saying “I’m sorry” sincerely is important for both the offender and the offended. Limbaugh said his apology was “heartfelt” but others did not share that assessment.
  3. Accepts moral responsibility. “I did it and I take full responsibility” is a succinct statement accepting moral responsibility.
  4. Avoids justification or excuse. When Michael Phelps, Olympic swimmer, apologized for being photographed using drugs, he blamed his behavior on his immaturity saying, “I’m 23 years old….” Unfortunately, four years before when he was caught he used the same excuse, “I’m just 19.” Limbaugh excused his behavior by saying it was an attempt at humor. Few found it funny.
  5. Invites forgiveness. Limbaugh’s apology is not addressed to Sandra Fluke and does not invite her forgiveness or other reconciling response. “I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me…” is a typical phrase used to open the door to forgiveness from the offended person, and restoration of the relationship.
  6. Implies the offended deserved better treatment. “I should not have spoken about you that way, you deserve my respect.” Limbaugh could have used a phrase similar to that, but he did not. His apology centered on himself, not the person he offended.
  7. Commits to not repeating the offense in the future. If he was sincerely interested in making things right, Limbaugh might have been expected to repent as well. Remorse is sorrow for one’s action; repentance involves changing one’s behavior. There is no indication Limbaugh promised never to attack anyone personally again. Quite the contrary, his continued explanations involved attacks on others.
  8. Offers amends. Newspapers offer amends for inaccurate reporting by printing retractions. Courts are filled each day with people seeking amends through court settlements. Limbaugh’s apology made no move to offer amends. Even Don Imus offered to meet personally with the young college women he offended as a way to make amends personally.

Rush Limbaugh’s apology should be seen for what it is – an insincere attempt to limit the damage to his brand, and to stem the flight of his advertisers. As such, his mea culpa fails the test of moral apology, not to mention common decency.

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17 Comments

  1. Very disappointed that you have decided to try to make this a “teachable” moment. I am glad that you are honest about your dislike for Limbaugh but even your honesty doesn’t prevent your post from being skewed.
    Since you don’t like Limbaugh I will assume that you did not actually hear him make the comments, or apology. The comments were made tongue-in-cheek and while the two terms that he used were inappropriate the point he was making was very true. The backlash has been nothing short of a media creation, (Much like Herman Cain’s womanizing allegations and Rick Santorum’s contraception views) and the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. This fact furthers my disappointment that you would try to capitalize on this ‘frenzy” to make a point without assessing both sides.
    Frankly, the very notion that you can assess Mr. Limbaugh’s authenticity by reading transcripts and coverage of the story is laughable if not insulting.
    Maybe tomorrow you can address true forgivingness, afterall, Ms Fluke has (along with the media) made it a point to reject Mr. Limbaugh’s apology.

    1. Brendan,
      Thanks for your comments. First, why do you assume I did not listen to Limbaugh’s remarks. I actually did, and I’m sorry but calling a 30-year old woman a slut and a prostitute is beyond the pale, and even his Republican friends are saying so. There is no defense for this personal, slanderous attack.

      Secondly, this should be a teachable moment. As pastors we deal in the stuff of forgiveness, reconciliation, apology, repentance, and restoration. Limbaugh’s apology does not qualify, based on Govier’s definition, which I think is a good standard.

      I never mentioned Rick Santorum or Herman Cain, so dragging them in to your comments to make a point only muddies the water here.

      While I do not like Limbaugh or what he does, I still think this is a good public example that we can draw some lessons from. I regret that you do not share my viewpoint, but such is life in a free society.

      All the best. -Chuck

    2. Thanks for graciously clarifying Chuck!
      I agree that the comments were out of line.
      I also believe in capitalizing on “teachable moments”.
      What caused me to chafe was the introduction of “christian piling on” to what I truly believe is a media created frenzy aimed at silencing certain voices.
      Parenthetically, I find it repugnant that some of the same sponsors leaving Limbaugh have had no problem advertising on such programs as Howard Stern or other “left-wing” platforms despite the filth or bias they promote. Again, that is a side point that’s probably not necessary or germane to our discussion.
      However, I appreciate your blog and I’m glad this post wasn’t submitted to add to the chorus of boos currently cascading through pop culture and the media.

      PS
      I still think you should do something on forgiveness tomorrow 🙂

  2. Brendan,
    One of the comments I have seen indicates that many people think that the imbalance of power here — Rush vs. a law student — is the real issue. This is similar to Don Imus and the women’s basketball team. It never looks good when a powerful, older white man demeans younger women college students who do not live their lives in the media circus that passes for entertainment today.

    I agree that advertisers are as prone to hypocrisy as any group, but they do listen to their customers. Limbaugh was just not thinking clearly, or he was so arrogant he didn’t care, when he made a vicious, sexist, demeaning attack on Sandra Fluke. Maybe he will think twice before trying to destroy someone else, particularly someone who is not a public figure.

    Sometimes even pop culture gets it right, and I think this is one of those rare times. Limbaugh, Imus, and others are examples of media personalities who cross the line of common decency. BTW, Limbaugh’s suggestion that he get to watch sex acts on YouTube has gotten little attention, but I consider that statement a window into his character as well.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Just so you know, my position is that Fluke does not have to accept Limbaugh’s apology, or offer her forgiveness primarily because he never addressed her directly, nor did he ask for her forgiveness. His “apology” was addressed to his listener base, as we his explanation on Monday justifying his apology. So, he justified his apology to save face with his listeners, while insulting others in the process. Read the transcript on his website for yourself. Politics aside, Limbaugh is not a nice person, in my opinion.

  3. Chuck, as ever, I think that this is a great post of yours.

    I used to listen to Limbaugh a lot, and then still did sometimes because I’m tired of his defenders saying that I can’t criticize him because I don’t listen. But, really, I can. He’s not some genius of satire who can’t be understood without weeks and weeks of intense listening.

    He’s a bully who likes insulting and isn’t above slandering those with whom he disagrees.

  4. Nice article, Chuck. I was recently a part of something called Transformational Leadership and they included something called the six-step apology:
    1) Acknowledge the offense.
    2) Say, “I was wrong.”
    3) Say, “I’m sorry.”
    4) Ask, “Will you forgive me?”
    5) Ask, “Will you hold me accountable to not do this again?”
    6) Ask, “Is there anything else I should be aware of?”

    1. Scott,
      Good to hear from you again. Those are very good points, and I like the progression and simplicity of each step. Thanks for sharing them. Hope all is well with you and your family. -Chuck

  5. Thanks for your continued astute and well reasoned responses. I wish we were sitting in a room together having this conversation.

    I completely agree with your comments about the balance of power!

    I will note that I also heard Imus’ commens live when they happened but I have a differenttake on his acts of contrition, not worth getting into here.

    I also don’t think that the sponsors are listening to their customers. Many of them wouldn’t be where they are without Limbaughs loyal fan base. I think they initally heard the “vocal minority” (read activists who sit around waiting for this type of red meat) and then as the media hype escalated they acted to “cover” themselves. Ironically doing the same thing Limbaugh was accused of doing with his apology.

    We’ll probably never agree on all the points of our individual assessments which is fine, but what you’ve really got me wondering is this.
    If Ms Fluke was one of your church members would you really counsel her that she had no responsibility to forgive?

    1. Brendan,
      Good question — “If Ms Fluke was one of your church members would you really counsel her that she had no responsibility to forgive?”

      Your question does a couple of things. First, you pose the question by asking “if Ms. Fluke was one of your church members…” In my opinion, that changes the situation. In Matthew 18:15-17, often called “The Rule of Christ,” Jesus gives his followers guidance for dealing with offenses between his followers. The initiative lies with the offended person to seek out the offender, and try to reconcile. If one-to-one reconciliation fails, then the offended is to take 2 or 3 other believers with him or her to talk to the offender. If that fails, the entire assembly of believers is to be informed so that the body as a whole can address the offender. If that fails, then the offender is to be treated like he does not belong to the group, and is in need of redemption like tax collectors and pagans.

      So, that is a different scenario than the reality that we have with Limbaugh and Ms. Fluke. They are not members of my congregation, so the above does not apply in my estimation. But on a strictly social level, forgiveness follows moral apology. Limbaugh clearly (as I wrote in the post) fails the test of moral apology, so in my opinion Ms. Fluke as a member of a civil society has no obligation to forgive him.

      However, she may choose to pardon, condone (I doubt it), excuse, or ignore Limbaugh. In any event, neither party appears interested in repairing their relationship (did they really have one?) and in reconciliation. Forgiveness means, in my opinion, that past offenses have been set aside, and that a relationship can begin anew. This is not going to happen with Limbaugh and Fluke, so forgiveness and reconciliation are not terms I would use in their case. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, just that it appears neither party is interested in it happening. Both appear to me to be acting politically at this point, not out of interest for their relationship or lack of one.

  6. Chuck, great article. I came across it on EthicsDaily. I’m glad it pointed me to your blog. I’m very impressed with not only the article but the thoughtful way you handle critiques and comments. I will definitely return.

  7. Now Jane Fonda and her group Women’s Media Now are asking that Rush be taken off the air. How is that for being a hypocrite. Hanoi Jane,during her trip to the enemy in the Vietnam War, Fonda made ten radio broadcasts in which she denounced American political and military leaders as “war criminals”. Fonda has defended her decision to travel to North Vietnam and her radio broadcasts.[33][34] Also during the course of her visit, Fonda visited American prisoners of war (POWs), and brought back messages from them to their families. When cases of torture began to emerge among POWs returning to the United States, Fonda called the returning POWs “hypocrites and liars”.

    Jane got forgiveness and now has political power to post Editorials on CNN. America needs to pay attention in this next election cycle.

    1. Bill, thanks for your comment. Personally destructive comments, from either the right or left of the political spectrum, are not helpful in a civil society in my opinion.

  8. A very good post. We had a shock jock radio announcer in Australia cause a big storm by something he said about someone recently. It would have helped if he used these points in his “apology”.

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