Mr. Limbaugh and My Primal Rush

Mr. Limbaugh and My Primal Rush
Photo by DonkeyHotey via Flickr Creative Commons

Progressive Religion Is Not an Oxymoron

Columnist’s note: Although the following article is not about religion or religious practices in any direct way, it is about something of deep concern, even ultimate concern. Many religious traditions would affirm that any and all ultimate concerns are inherently religious in nature. In addition, all three of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) proclaim that the right or moral treatment of others includes compassion, respect and kindness. A vast majority of today’s supposedly conservative media commentators obviously see these values quite differently.

David Roy
David Roy

Those rare moments when I happen to read or hear the words of one Rush Limbaugh, I am instantly gripped by a powerful, unthinking visceral reaction. The raging beast in me races to the inner clearing in my mind, roaring primal threats and denunciations.

The beast wants to attack and destroy this offender against humanity, this paragon of contempt against most everything that elevates the human soul above that of the raging beast.

And therein lies my dilemma—no, our dilemma as human beings who care for the well-being of others. We who wish to deepen and broaden the extent of humane, civilized, gracious, sensitive, respectful, compassionate behaviors that people and societies demonstrate to others—we of all people cannot seek to slay the beast in others with our own beast.

What Is Mr. Limbaugh’s Appeal?
So, Mr. Limbaugh [Mr. L for short] gets away with it, day after day, week after week—for years on end. What is his appeal? What are the soul-deep dynamics at work in him and in his two primary audiences (those who adore him and those who loathe him)?

Mr. L is worth paying attention to for no other reason than the fact he is the undisputed contemporary model for the large coast-to-coast army of radio and television dispensers of daily derision. He also has a huge audience (20 million?) and generates a lot of money for his media conduits and for himself.

His Mastery of Evoking Negative Emotions
I believe a huge reason for his success is due to his unequaled mastery of the means of evoking intense and negative emotions. These raging rivers of feelings that he taps into and then powerfully amplifies are his power source. They drive most everything that happens.

I also believe he is playing with something that can readily get out of control—jump the riverbanks and flood the fields, blow up the rocket and rain fire on the spectators, hurl buildings into the air with wind so wild the city disappears.

Why do things work this way? What is he streaming?

He Streams Contempt, Disdain, Disgust
If you listen to Mr. L, his tone of voice as well as the words he uses convey the many shades of contempt, disdain and disgust, emotions and attitudes that are guaranteed to get under our skin—the skin of a human being.

Again, why is this so? Why does this unholy constellation of “disses” get to us? Because they all evoke one of the most painful and powerful of our natural emotions: shame.

It’s All about Shame
In case you are tempted to tune me out here, shame on you! Just kidding…sort of. I find that it can be difficult to have an in-depth, rational discussion about shame, even with other mental health colleagues. The minimization of the importance of this topic, as well as the downright avoidance, is actual proof of the power of shame to shape our responses.

Intense, raw shame is excruciatingly painful.

The experience of shame strikes to the core of who we are as a person. Amid such a moment, we feel made fun of, we feel others are laughing at us or mocking us for such an obvious grotesqueness that we cannot change. As author John Bradshaw put it, with shame we didn’t just make a mistake; we are this mistake (Healing the Shame That Binds You, Health Communications, Inc., 1988).

The intensity of a moment of shame is on a continuum, from a mild flicker of embarrassment to the burning heat of total mortification: accidentally bumping into a friend while walking down a hallway together (“You klutz! “Sorry…again.”) versus being singled out in front of the entire class as being “The dumbest kid I’ve ever had the displeasure of trying to teach!” for not remembering to bring a pen to class.

Adults spend a lot of time and energy reacting to real and imagined slights as well as doing many things to avoid shame. It might help to have some examples:

Following are a list of familiar incidents that are likely to trigger shame. Each of these situations can have a variety of reactions, depending on the person and possibly the nature of the relationship:

  • Someone cuts you off on the freeway and you’re far more insulted (shamed) than scared (classic road rage).
  • You’ve been told the dinner was dress-down causal, but you’re the only one in jeans (mortification and the urge to disappear).
  • It’s your birthday, but when the supervisor names everyone with a birthday this month, she omits your name (shame and deep hurt; nurse a grudge indefinitely?).
  • You’re in an upscale men’s store and all the salespeople ignore you, talking to each other until an obviously wealthy man comes through the door (shame, outrage—Pretty Woman revenge?).
  • You’ve lost your professional position you’ve had for 35 years, you are 58 with few prospects of anything matching your salary or job esteem (mortified; worthless; depression).

Shame Triggers Rage and/or Withdrawal
As you can see, being shamed often leads to intense anger, anger at the level of rage. It also can cause people to protect themselves by withdrawing, thereby making themselves unavailable for reconciliation.

In therapy, when people are dealing with shame issues, I often recommend Bradshaw’s book (mentioned above) as well as Shame: The Power of Caring by Gershen Kaufman.

Healing the Interpersonal Bridge

Kaufman talks about the importance of reestablishing the “interpersonal bridge” as a key step in healing a relationship broken by shame; or, as often happens, when one person gets stuck with unresolved shame that can interfere with trust and intimacy indefinitely.

Shame Has a Positive Function

It is important to keep in mind that shame has a positive function in teaching us limits and also keeping us a suitable member of our particular group. That is, there are plenty of situations in which the shame is necessary and appropriate (telling a three-year-old that he cannot eat all the candy in one sitting that he got for Halloween, then taking it away from him when he refused to stop, zinging his budding autonomy).

Obviously, though, a little shame can go a long way, even under the best of circumstances.

The Negative Effects of Radio Shows That Repeatedly Shame
So, what do we have going on with Mr. L? He is extraordinarily adept at saying things about, and even to, people in a manner that conveys disgust and disdain, that are designed to trigger intense shame.

His loyal audience, the people who listen to him on a regular basis, are not—or at least, don’t see themselves—the targets of these shameevoking attacks. No, instead they are siding with him, vicariously or actually participating in the shaming of the unfortunates of the nation and the world, the ones who just don’t get it. (Classic Freudian psychology called this “identification with the aggressor.”)

Are Listeners Motivated by a Self-Esteem Fix?

Why would someone need to do this? The most obvious reason, particularly for those who are deeply stirred by participating in the loathing of the ongoing stream of stupid, devious, lazy, evil degenerates, is that this provides a boost to their own self-esteem.

That is, the cheapest, easiest way to offset any feelings of inadequacy is to point to someone who is more inadequate. Of course, this doesn’t last. It needs continuous replenishment because the core feelings of inadequacy are not themselves healed.

So, in this sense, one could conclude that Mr. L is dispensing an extremely powerful, even dangerous, drug that a whole lot of people depend on for a temporary sense of well-being.

We All Feel Some Existential Insecurity

It needs to be stressed, however, that nearly all human beings have a core of some degree of existential insecurity (we are actually small creatures on an enormous planet set amid an unfathomably large universe).

Many of us who are not in any way close to being like those who are calling themselves conservative today nonetheless put others down to feel better. But, hopefully, we know better and can rein this in and redirect the energy toward a more positive approach.

Mr. L and His Media Followers Shame Deliberately
What makes Mr. L and the hundreds of media types who are imitating him so different is that they are consciously, intentionally, uninhibitedly throwing these shame-filled firebombs out into the public square on a continuous basis. Bill Press in his book, Toxic Talk, estimates that every day conservative talk radio programs broadcast in excess of 2,570 hours of this kind of content.

There are no efforts made to bridge or transcend or bring people together. The only behavior that is being offered, the only behavior to model, is how to attack people with whom you might disagree. And it is to attack them in an absolute manner; they are depicted as completely hopeless, totally worthless, perhaps even dangerous to be around.

This Approach Blocks the Development of a Community
There can be no community built when the face of those who differ from you in some manner is not truly your human equal. Therein lies the tragedy and the danger to our commonwealth, to our republic, to our democracy, to our nation.

I do not see any quick and easy solutions. If we hate and try to destroy the virulent haters and shamers who dominate the airwaves, we are only responding in kind and it really won’t work. Gandhi knew this when he said that we have to become the peace we seek. Thich Nhat Hahn repeats a similar sentiment.

We have to attempt to speak to the more rational parts of those who are promoting, sponsoring, broadcasting and listening to Mr. L and the others, to let these groups know that the tone of these programs falls far below the ethical standards set by most major religions and by any kind of common sense about what is decent and healthy in a civilized society.

I suppose you could call this gently shaming the shamers.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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