Among the oddities of attending a large law school is that one can walk the same halls with someone for three years and never learn their name — that is, until Rush Limbaugh calls them a slut on national radio. Such was my introduction both to my classmate and to her views on the contraception debate taking place in Congress in recent weeks. Articles discussing the passage of a law that would force all employers to offer their employees health insurance plans that include birth control coverage can be found featured on the front pages of newspapers across the country.
Sandra Fluke, a third-year Georgetown University law student testified on Capitol Hill in mid-February, explaining the difficulties women face when neither their school nor their employer will cover their contraception. Soon after, to a backdrop of corny music on his three hour radio show, Rush Limbaugh derisively called her a “slut” and insinuated that she was constantly having sex, before finally asking her to broadcast her sexual encounters on the web, so that he may “watch what he is paying for.”
As might be expected of an unmarried Muslim law student, I am generally unfamiliar with the particulars of contraception and its cost, particularly for women. I highly doubt that Rush Limbaugh and I were the only men to initially be taken aback by the passionate arguments put forth by Ms. Fluke and other women in favor of mandatory contraception coverage of. Unlike the rest of us however, Limbaugh speaks into a microphone for three hours a day, offering his immediate, knee-jerk, and usually casually researched reactions. Therein lies the problem.
The brightest star in the U.S. Constitution is the First Amendment, the backbone of our ability to publicly criticize and debate public policy. We have largely squandered this opportunity, however, by confusing free speech with constant speech. By demanding that media personalities distill every piece of news as it is happening, we can be sure that thoughtful analysis will take a backseat to the misinformed generalizations inherent to visceral reactions.
No longer content to allow journalists the time needed to pause, research, and understand a story before expressing an opinion on it, we have opened the door wide for the sharpest tongues, rather than sharpest minds, to set the tone for our most contentious discussions. This becomes a real problem when an issue divides along easily identifiable lines, such as the current contraception debate. Many religious organizations consider the idea of covering contraception antithetical to their views on proper, modest sexual conduct. Meanwhile, many women feel that reticence to cover contraception is akin to playing “political football with women’s health.”
If secular personalities and women wanted to understand the passionate religious, particularly Catholic, opposition to contraception, they might sit down and ask, rather than prematurely label religious organizations’ stance as a “war on women.” Conversely, men such as myself and Rush Limbaugh cannot hope to make an intelligent analysis about this policy’s effect on women without asking women to help us understand what we simply don’t know. But that would require each side to pause, to breathe, and to think past our reflexive reactions. Unfortunately, an informed, humble commentator is not as likely to draw high ratings as the train wrecks we love to hate.
As an offshoot of our microwave meal culture, we have come to like our news media like our fast food: instantaneous, high-volume and salty. While that makes for a great burger, it makes for an incredibly uninformative press. It has been two weeks since Sandra Fluke testified in front of Congress and after a series of rants and apologies, all we have learned is what we already knew: that she is not a prostitute. By asking the media to react immediately and decisively to developing stories in real time, we ensure that we’ll spend more time demanding apologies for incendiary remarks than educating ourselves on the nuances of an issue.
Abrar Qadir is a student at Georgetown University Law Center. Originally from California, Abrar attended the University of California, Berkeley before moving East. Abrar maintains a regular blog at www.punjabirefill.com.