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Rush Limbaugh’s Non-Apology Apology

Research reveals the rhetorical tricks Rush Limbaugh used to minimize personal responsibility as he apologized to the woman he called a slut.
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An unusually remorseful Rush Limbaugh has publicly apologized for calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she advocated mandated medical insurance coverage for contraceptives. “Those two words were inappropriate,” he reiterated on his popular radio program on Monday.

While many commentators were surprised by the statement’s contrite tone — it ends with the sentence, “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices” — it reminded us of a perceptive research paper we wrote about (“We're Sorry: Not All Apologies Are Apologies”) in January.

Zohar Kampf, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem assistant professor of communications, examined 354 conditional apologies made by Israeli public figures, organizations, or institutions between 1997 and 2004. Studying “how public figures realize creative forms of apologetic speech in order to minimize their responsibility for misdeeds,” he identified 14 ways to frame a conditional apology.

One particularly popular type of pseudo-apology downplays the transgressor’s degree of responsibility. Kampf identifies five variations on this theme, noting that a wrongdoer can:

1) Apologize while undermining the claim that he offended someone; 2) apologize for the outcome but not for the act; 3) apologize for the style but not for the essence; 4) apologize for a specific component of the offense but not for the entire occurrence; and 5) apologize while using syntactic and lexical means to downgrade his responsibility.” The latter category includes referring to an offensive action as a “mistake,” which effectively minimizes guilt.

With that framework in mind, let’s look at Rush’s written statement.

First of all, by specifically apologizing for use of the words “slut” and “prostitute,” his statement falls under Kampf’s category four: it is a selective apology that focuses on “a specific component of the offense but not for the entire occurrence.”

The specificity of his remorse implies demeaning her at great length was fine; it was only those two words crossed the line.

Second, the statement, “I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke” clearly falls under category five: minimizing personal responsibility. So does the faux-humble assertion “My choice of words was not the best,” and his insistence that they were spoken in an “attempt to be humorous.”

Hey — it was just a joke that misfired. That’s happened to all of us, hasn’t it?

“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week,” Limbaugh writes. This is a clear attempt at downgrading responsibility by attempting to place it in a sympathetic context. When you consider how many hours the guy is on the radio every year, how important are a few minutes of air time?

Rush also engages in a more subtle bit of self-justification. Immediately after insisting “I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke,” he writes: “I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress.”

There is a strongly implied “but” between those two statements. Given their side-by-side placement, they clearly fall into Kampf’s somewhat awkwardly worded second category, “apology for the outcome (and not for the act).”

This category features statements in which public figures nominally apologize for creating damage, but imply the unfortunate outcome is unimportant when you look at the bigger picture — specifically, the noble goal they were pursuing when they committed the offense.

One example Kampf uses is a statement by the Israeli Defense Forces issued after Palestinian noncombatants were inadvertently harmed during a military campaign. It expressed sorrow “if civilians were injured, but not for the successful operation.”

In other words, our goals (in Limbaugh’s case, decrying the unfairness of what Fluke is advocating) are so important that if people were hurt as we were in the process of pursuing them, it was unfortunate but sadly necessary. When you’re doing battle with evil, collateral damage is inevitable, isn’t it?

Looked at in this light, Rush wasn’t all that contrite.

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