Yesterday, I didn’t know who Phil Robertson was. I had heard of the show and was aware of its place in the zeitgeist, but I have never seen an entire episode. However, in just 24 short hours this backwoods brouhaha shot to the top of social media feeds and trending topics making Phil Robertson the poster-boy for Christian “free speech.”
While I don’t agree with Robertson’s statements, point-of-view, or even his stupid beard, I do think that A&E acted cowardly in suspending him from their dumb show that probably shouldn’t be on the air in the first place (again, I’ve never watched it). It’s another attempt to sanitize thought, a practice with indeterminate rules that regulates what sort of opinions can be heard en masse.
Phil Robertson is not a great American “thought-leader,” nor should he be. However his suspension for comments not even made on the network is indicative of the same systemic problem with free expression that led to Alec Baldwin’s firing, Martin Bashir’s resignation, and countless other instances where the response to an unpopular opinion was to effectively silence that person by taking away their platform.
Before I go further, yes I totally understand that this is not a First Amendment issue. Robertson wasn’t arrested nor is his family now on the run from the government. In fact, while all this is going on there is a genuine First Amendment case unfolding in Tampa, Fl. right now, wherein a man was arrested after making a Twitter joke. So when I speak of “free expression,” I am speaking more of the ideal/philosophy behind a society in which open thought exists. Comedian Dan Obeidallah also discusses this in an essay on The Daily Beast, pointing out that that fallout that Robertson, Baldwin, Bashir, and others is a justified response by the people who give them their platform. Not the position I would expect from a winner of a Bill Hicks Award, but he at least frames the problem and his opinion well. I just think he’s wrong.
There is a quote (I am paraphrasing*) that says all ideas—even the most vile—have a place in the sun, where the good ones will grow and the bad ones wilt into dust. It’s not that I think “political correctness is evil.” I understand the good intentions behind it, that no one who is oppressed, a minority, or even sensitive be harmed by the statements of another or a societal belief. Yet it was politically uncorrect speech—like that of James Baldwin, Lenny Bruce, Alan Ginsberg, and countless others—that sparked a massive shift in thought that ultimately made America a better and more inclusive place to live. These were the “good” ideas that blossomed in the sunlight of the public forum.
The controversial statements Robertson and Bashir made are examples of the bad ideas. Yet, rather than allow that bad thinking to wither and die out in the open, external forces step in and shut them down, as if we need their protection. Often not acting until the offender apologizes publicly. Why does offensive speech “matter,” but the apology is utterly ignored and/or disbelieved?
The old childhood adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” seems to have been retired. Yet those who think that firing people who sometimes say offensive things (either directly or as artistic expression) is a good idea are forgetting another old-timey cliché, “you attract more flies with honey than vinegar.” Rather than silence these folks, why not incorporate the discussion into the show. As this family gets more experience in the world of show-business and encounter more openly gay people, I imagine that their opinions will change. If “Duck Dynasty” became the recorded document of Phil Robertson evolving his religious belief into one that is more tolerant (arguably, more Christ-like) and recognizing the error for himself, I’d take back everything bad I said about the show. It seemed to me these causes used to be about changing people’s minds, not shutting up the opposing viewpoints.
Frankly, I think media outlets, special interests groups, and most Americans should not care what Robertson thinks about anything. Reality television is the modern-day sideshow; the acts should really be pitied not revered. Yet, if it is supposed to be “reality,” the removal of the show because of these statements goes beyond a network’s freedom of choice about the programming it airs. It speaks to a kind of editorial control that says they “know best” what things people should see and hear, rather than letting the audience decide for themselves.
Frankly, I couldn’t care less if Robertson and his whole brood are fired from A&E and their whole compound is decimated by a falling asteroid. What really worries me about situations like this is that it seems to say that society is not strong enough to whether and reject stupid or hateful ideas. Looking at our own Opposing Views commenters, I have been brutally insulted by readers. I have been accused of being a propaganda mouthpiece for the left and the right (sometimes on the same article). I don’t mind, because as long as people are reading, the more chance I have to reach them.
Sometimes, I see discussions between commenters devolve into racist or misogynist attacks that focus on the person commenting rather than the point. That is what I think happens here with these situations. Firing Robertson or Baldwin doesn’t advance LGBT rights in anyway. Instead it’s a fundraising goldmine but a cheap victory for special interest groups who go after it because it’s easy. For any person on any side of an issue, silencing the opposing view never advances your argument. It only makes it seem like it can’t stand up to the smallest scrutiny.
*I have no idea who said it originally. I have heard it attributed to many comedians and writers ranging from Ricky Gervais and Greg Gutfeld to Oscar Wilde and Rousseau. If anyone knows the correct original quote, I’d appreciate it if you noted it in the comments.