WASHINGTON, December 21, 2013 — A&E’s firing of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson — or placing him on “indefinite suspension” — has infuriated his fans and supporters and raised concerns about “free speech.”
There is no speech issue here. A&E was entirely within the rights of employers to fire employees for publicly expressing opinions they don’t like. If you say something that offends the political sensibilities of your employers on Facebook, they should be able to fire you, whether for being homophobic, pro-same-sex marriage, liberal, conservative, feminist or ditto-head. If you express opinions that make an employer uncomfortable and threaten the brand image, you have no reason to expect to keep your job.
The exercise of that right to fire, though, is troubling. We begin to hold each other hostage, threatening boycotts against people and firms who allow opinions we despise. The tendency to engage in tit-for-tat public outrage can escalate into total war, where we are more interested in crushing our opposition than in promoting civil discourse.
The speech issue aside, Duck Dynasty and its backward swamp denizens have been treated as the nadir of American culture. Sophisticated and educated people like diversity, but many are offended by the existence of diversity that doesn’t share their education, their values, or their tastes. Much of the scorn that’s being heaped on the Robertsons has taken on the feel of classism and snobbery.
There are many people who live in doublewide trailers, who don’t speak standard English, who like their religion fundamentalist and who wear polyester. They are often good and kind and worth knowing. If your car broke down on a rural road, the odds are good that someone like the Robertsons would stop to help, without first asking about your sexual orientation.
The way that Robertson has been dismissed in social media often contains a classist, regionalist assumption that southerners are inbred, toothless idiots. Even Phil Robertson’s beard has come in for comment. What’s wrong with his beard? It’s ugly? Have you never watched the freak show of an Oscars red carpet? Would we like his sentiments more if he had expressed them more elegantly, clean-shaven and wearing an impeccable, bespoke suit? If not, what’s the obsession with the regional peculiarities of the man beyond a type of ad hominem appeal to cultural stereotypes?
Problematic here is the idea that diversity is okay as long as it’s the right kind of diversity. Diversity that revolves around skin color and gender orientation is as useful as diversity based on eye color and how many consonants are in your last name.
Real diversity is diversity of thought and opinion. If we think that blacks bring essential diversity to the university, it has nothing to do with their skin color, but with the way their skin color has shaped their experiences and their view of the world. If they see the world exactly the way everyone else does, where’s the diversity? We might as well demand a balance of blonds, brunettes and red-heads.
If the real diversity is diversity of thought, then we should welcome all sorts of ideas into the marketplace of ideas. What we get from this episode isn’t that people want A&E to fire Robertson - they do - but that they want his voice and voices like his silenced. They don’t want their ideas to compete with his; they want his ideas summarily removed from the marketplace. It’s permissible to argue one side of the issue, but not the other if someone finds it hurtful or offensive. If you hold the other and you want to keep your job, shut up.
Self-censorship is deadly. Why should we expect that every voice that speaks on same-sex marriage be cheerfully in favor? Are gays so fragile that they need our constant support, so pathetically stupid that they don’t know what men like Robertson think of them? Why would we demand that people from rural Louisiana to have the same opinions as people who work at Harvard, and then be shocked when they don’t? Do we only want diversity of appearance, not of substance?
The goal here isn’t government censorship, which we all agree is illegal, but self-censorship and a one-sided conversation. That’s not just bad, it’s Stalinist. The Dixie Chicks were hit with boycotts for comments they made about President Bush and the war in Iraq, and even received death threats. Yet isn’t it one of the glories of America that we can condemn the actions of our government? Is it unpatriotic to question your government’s decision to go to war, whether in Iraq, in Libya or in Syria? Stalinism seems attractive to everyone who has to fight against opposing points of view.
Lost in this is that Robertson isn’t a stereotype. He’s a man, and one whose life has been very different from most of ours. He was a field laborer, a military enlisted man, a 60s drug user from backwoods Louisiana. Who could possibly be surprised that, having come back to his childhood religion and his cultural roots that he holds views on gays that are unpopular in New York and Los Angeles?
Don’t we all hold ugly, unfair views about someone? Most people do, including the ones who are characterizing Robertson. The attempts to silence Robertson through the tool of commerce — everyone threatening everyone else with boycotts and financial harm for harboring anyone who holds unpopular opinions — are crude and unfair. It’s entirely fair for people to speak their opinions, for employers to fire people for sharing their opinions, for sponsors to lift sponsorship, for customers to stop buying a product. When we set up shouting sections to push people into it, however, we’re bullying; we’re shouting down the opposition. That was unfair against the Dixie Chicks, and it’s unfair against Robertson. It is Stalinist.
Good people often hold ugly beliefs, and out of more noble impulses they often do cruel and stupid things. Humans are complex. We should judge each other gently, as we would wish to be judged, and with generosity. We should learn to tolerate people whose ideas are different from ours, even odious to us. That means learning to tolerate their speech, not just their existence.
You can hate people or you can teach them, but you can’t do both at the same time. Hate a whole class of Americans and you vote to bring us down to distrust and Stalinism. Care about them instead and you can work on changing their minds. The choice is ours, and from it we’ll get the America we deserve.
Correction: This article previously referred to Phil Robertson as “uneducated.” He did in fact attend Lousiana Tech. The author fell victim to his own stereotypes of rural Louisianans, especially embarassing because he has lived for several years in rural Louisiana and knows better.
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