“I hope it fucking hurts as he dies.”
That response to the news that Rush Limbaugh has ‘advanced lung cancer’ isn’t all that crazy. Rush has been instrumental in creating a horrifying and fascist atmosphere in the United States of America. Whether he led the charge or was just an opportunist who figured out how to make money stoking the flames doesn’t matter – you can draw a straight line from Limbaugh’s show to the increasingly dictatorial toddler in the White House. It’s foolish to blame individuals for the sweep of history but… we can kinda lay some of the blame for our current situation at Limbaugh’s feet.
It’s human to have a reaction like that. We have enemies, rivals, adversaries, and we want them destroyed. It’s the animal in us, the pack beast that jockeyed for position. You think cancel culture is bad, you should see what chimps do to each other when one of them falls from grace. But the point of being human, I believe, is to transcend whenever possible those most animal urges, the things that evolution left sitting in our brains like time-delayed dirty bombs. The things that make us selfish and cruel, because being selfish and cruel might have at one time been useful in order to pass our genes on to the next generation.
I didn’t have quite that reaction to the news of Limbaugh’s illness. There was a moment where “Fuck this guy,” occurred to me. Then there was a really condescending few minutes where I thought, “I hope this terrible experience gives him the clarity to see why he has been so wrong for so long and that he tries, in his final days, to make amends.” But finally I just came to one realization: I don’t want anybody to suffer. Anybody.
This isn’t the same as crying for Limbaugh. Plenty of people are experiencing awful illnesses, many of them terminal, and I don’t have the emotional space to feel all of that. You just can’t! It’s terrible, but it’s true. But I can extend to him the same feeling I extend to all those nameless ill – it’s unfortunate that you’re having this experience.
Here’s how my thinking on this works: I don’t like cancer. I am against cancer. My girlfriend is undergoing treatment for cancer right now. I go with her to the cancer hospital, and I spend the day surrounded by a lot of people dealing with cancer. It’s awful, and I don’t like it. But my problem is with cancer; my problem isn’t that the wrong people are getting cancer. I don’t say to myself “Well, cancer wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t go after people I like.” I think cancer is bad, and that’s it, full stop, I don’t need to go any further.
This is a moral thing I’ve come to understand for myself the last few years. It’s something I’ve always grappled with – I’ve been anti-death penalty my whole life – but I’ve often come down on the side of retribution, of Old Testament/EC Comics, you reap what you sow, attitudes (this is different from karma, which doesn’t play out as ironic punishment). But the reality is that I have come to understand that if I say I’m against, for instance, bullying, I need to be against bullying – not just bullying used against people I like.
A pretty prime example is the way our culture has relished the idea of men being raped in prison. While most people would tell us they’re anti-rape, many folks will be gleeful about the idea of a particularly bad person being violated in prison. This means they’re not anti-rape, they’re pro-rape when it’s used in a way of which they approve. They see rape as a tool, one that is sometimes wielded in ways they don’t like.
On a more day-to-day level we see people complaining about harassment online, and then turning around and using harassment against people they don’t like, siccing huge numbers of followers on ‘bad’ people, clogging up their Twitter mentions, etc. Again, if we are against harassment that means we’re against it in all cases, even when it’s applied to people who royally suck. But if we think certain people deserve pile-ons – if we think that account with 23 followers deserves 10,000 unpleasant replies because he tweeted something dumb about women in Star Wars – we’re not actually against harassment. We just think it should be used in ways that suit us.
Which is fine! I think that’s actually a reasonable ethical code by which we can live. People used to call it ‘live by the sword, die by the sword,’ but now maybe it’s ‘live by the mean tweet, die by the mean tweet.’ I did! I used to live by that code, and in the end I died by that code. Fair enough.
But it’s not a reasonable ethical code if we pretend that isn’t our code. If we pile on people and then get mad when people we like get piled on, that’s hypocrisy. If we relish someone else getting cancer and then get mad when a dude relishes a person we like getting cancer, that’s hypocrisy. A certain level of hypocrisy is, I think, impossible to avoid in this life, but this feels like one very easy to skirt. Just stop engaging in behavior that we would find monstrous in others.
This doesn’t mean everybody has to be all sunshine and roses about Limbaugh. I know people whose parents have been turned into Nazi-adjacent Fox News zombies as a result of Limbaugh and the culture he promoted. He’s caused real harm to individuals and to society. But I think we’re all mature enough to hold two thoughts in our head at once: Rush Limbaugh is a person who has made the world worse, and we are against people getting cancer. Neither of those cancels the other out.
But there’s another dimension to this: relishing Limbaugh getting cancer is bad for us. It feels good in the moment, like so many self-destructive sense pleasures do, but it wears us down. It makes us coarse and unpleasant. To find pleasure in the suffering of others makes us hard, makes it more difficult for us to feel for other people who are suffering. There’s an infectious thought process – once we start thinking Person A deserves their illness/bad luck, we begin to wonder what Person B did to deserve their illness. It darkens our vision, slowly but surely, and I spent decades under the unpleasant spell of schadenfreude (and really, it’s unclear when if ever I’ll totally leave that particular emotion behind). It made me less likely to be compassionate for other people, it made me more likely to brush off the suffering of others.
But to bring it all down to the most immediate level: relishing the pain of others is what bad guys do. It’s just bad guy behavior. We all know that; it would be weird to watch Superman yell “I hope it hurts the whole time you die, you bald motherfucker” at Lex Luthor. It’s part of what made Anakin Skywalker become a bad guy in Star Wars – he wanted his enemies to suffer, even though his enemies were often bad guys themselves. I see people bringing equivalencies to stuff like this – “What would Limbaugh say if Obama got cancer?” or something, and the answer is “He’s a bad guy and whatever he says is the opposite of what we should be saying!” Let’s take some guidance from the bad behavior of our enemies and be grateful that they’re brightly illuminating for us which path to not take.
It’s okay to have bad thoughts about Rush Limbaugh, or any person you dislike who has something awful happen to them. We have thoughts and they arise on their own, and their content is not a judgment on who we are. If we could hear the thoughts of the people around us right now, the weird and ugly things that flit through their head, sewage puked up by the odd machinery of the mind, we’d think we were surrounded by psychopaths. And if they could hear our thoughts…
No, what matters is what we do with those thoughts. We can choose to let them go and instead focus on the ones that are a little brighter, a little more helpful, a little more compassionate. We don’t have to light prayer candles for someone like Limbaugh, but we might just find that our own view gets brighter and better if we don’t hold on to our unpleasant glee at their misfortune. And we might find that when we actually dedicate ourselves to a coherent ethical policy – violence is wrong, no matter who it’s aimed at, cruelty is wrong, no matter who is receiving it, cancer is bad, no matter who has it – we have the space and ability to be better people day-to-day.