WASHINGTON, December 29, 2013 — A&E’s sudden turnaround on Phil Robertson and “Duck Dynasty” should have surprised no one. “Duck Dynasty” is the most popular program on A&E, the second most watched program on cable television after AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” The show’s fans were furious at the suspension, and A&E was immediately faced with the choice of kneecapping itself, or outraging GLAAD and people who don’t watch the show anyway.
This episode made a lot of people look bad, or worse, stupid. A&E’s suspension of Robertson was a knee-jerk response to criticism from GLAAD. GLAAD’s response to Robertson’s GQ interview was just as knee-jerk. The defense of Robertson from conservatives was Pavlovian, and they looked ignorant of the exact nature of the First Amendment.
The quick exchange of responses was thoughtless. A&E forgot who their audience was, and one of the show’s sponsors, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, forgot who their customers were. Cracker Barrel removed Duck Dynasty items from its shelves — for one day. The blowback was fierce, and the company immediately backed down.
This episode illustrates a new reality that should leave activist groups like GLAAD at least a little concerned. Businesses will fire people who make impermissible political comments, but “impermissible” means only that the comments put the business’s brand at risk and threaten the bottom line. The masters of A&E might hold views similar to those held by the officers of GLAAD, but that isn’t why they “fired” Phil Robertson. They fired him because they thought keeping him would hurt their profits.
They learned that firing him would hurt more. If one audience has the right to flip the channel if A&E keeps Phil, another has the right to flip the channel if A&E fires him. If this is about commerce, the larger audience will win.
And it did. Duck Dynasty products are back on sale at Cracker Barrel, and Phil Robertson is back on “Duck Dynasty.”
GLAAD isn’t as powerful in the media as it imagined, or as powerful as the network heads imagined. That message should be clear to any group that might want to hound someone off the airwaves for uttering impermissible thoughts. Impermissible depends on where the money is.
There is more to it than that. It is said that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Another, less elegant way to say it, is that it is better to be pro-something than anti-something.
This idea is implicit in the popular dislike for negative campaigning. We want our candidates not just to attack the positions of the other side, but to present their own positions and explain why they’re superior. We don’t want people to simply attack policies they don’t like, but to present alternatives that might be better.
Negativity continues to be a political staple because it works, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth and invites blowback. Your negative campaign may hurt the opposition, but it leaves people looking for a whiff of hypocrisy, something to justify turning on you.
This is a problem facing organizations like GLAAD. It exists in opposition to something — the name originally stood for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination — but what is it for? Is GLAAD in the business of lighting candles, or does it exist only to curse the darkness?
GLAAD’s power may be in decline. A&E’s turnaround, and GLAAD’s obvious dismay, says that it is. If so, it’s not because of a rising tide of anti-gay defamation and discrimination. The judicial, legislative, and popular tides have been strongly in favor of gay rights. That is why GLAAD may be in decline; it seems less necessary, and rather than serving as a beacon of justice and sanity, it’s a shrieking harridan.
The ACLU remains a force in American politics. It stands for something; it has a positive agenda that it actively pursues. GLAAD seems to be glued to its TV and computer screens, just waiting for an excuse to scream at someone.
On that point, it’s worth remembering that A&E does not and never has provided the Robertson family with a platform to express homophobic sentiment, and pushing Phil off the show would not have deprived him of a platform. The platform was provided by GQ, which is not a conservative publication. GLAAD was not interested in shutting off Phil Robertson’s platform; indeed, it can’t survive if they don’t have someone like Robertson to fight against. It only wanted to hit him in the pocketbook.
There are, predictably, calls for a “dialogue” on the issue of homophobia. GLAAD spokesman Wilson Cruz said, “If dialogue with Phil is not part of next steps then A&E has chosen profits over African American and gay people – especially its employees and viewers.”
A&E is a business. Of course it chose profits. It should have done a better job of that from the beginning. Dialogue should have been the opening move, not the fallback. There’s a broader political lesson here. Crusades and jihads may be emotionally satisfying, but they flame out when the passion does. Had A&E chosen to stand for something rather than against, it might have been more careful and saved itself embarrassment.
Ridding the world of hate won’t happen by hating, but by building something better. The way to deal with bad ideas is to promote good ones, not attempt to silence bad ones — to light candles, not curse the darkness. If GLAAD wants to stay relevant, it will take that lesson to heart. It’s a lesson that all our culture warriors and political bomb-throwers would do well to consider.
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