Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson is not entitled to his own opinion

Al Campanises and Thurgood Marshall have something to tell us about Phil Robertson and dangerous shortcuts. Photo: Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J., December 31, 2013 ― “We’re going to have to deal with the [Al] Campanises in baseball,” said Harry Edwards. With that, Major League baseball’s new diversity czar silenced his critics.

Previously, Edwards had caused the collective brow of the sports world to furrow in disbelief. From a leftist department (sociology) of a leftist school (UC-Berkley), a left-of-center professor (Edwards) with a penchant for striking fear in suburban sensibilities by talking about “the struggle” and “revolt of the black athlete” committed an act of leftist apostasy.

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In 1987, Edwards hired back Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanises after he’d curiously chosen the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier to speculate on “Nightline” that African-Americans “may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager … or general manager,” a quarterback or pitcher, and “they don’t have the buoyancy” to swim.

These incidents follow a predictable trajectory. From Don Imus to Laura Schlessinger to Paula Deen to Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, companies issue press releases expressing their “shock” — nay, “disbelief” ― followed by calls for firings, actual firings, the termination of endorsement deals, and finally the removal of products from shelves.

But that’s what boring people do.

Former Turkish President Kemal Ataturk wanted, like much of Europe today, to end the wearing of Islamic veils and hijabs in public. British advertising executive Rory Sutherland tells the story, probably apocryphal, that instead of banning veils, Ataturk made them compulsory attire for prostitutes.

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Sutherland, only half-jokingly, proposes a similar prescription for environmental problems: require all convicted child molesters to drive Hummers and SUVs. That is, “re-brand” the SUV, as Ataturk rebranded the veil.

The central insight here is this: Force is only one tool at society’s disposal to remediate the behavior of its members. Social pressure, persuasion, and humanizing the “other” through experience are effective alternative strategies.  

For the stickiest kinds of social change, “soft power” is almost always preferable to “hard power.” Jesse Owens’ participation in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany did more to fight racism than any Olympic boycotts have accomplished.

Harry Edwards knew this. Having unsuccessfully led the push to boycott the 1968 Olympics, Edwards settled for orchestrating Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s famous Black Power salute in Mexico City. The powerful symbolism trumped anything a boycott would’ve accomplished.

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Bigotry survives where people have insufficiently diverse experience with the people they’re bigoted against. So the solution to your racist uncle isn’t to not take your black friends around him. It may be to take all your black friends around him, a lot.

This was the underappreciated genius behind Thurgood Marshall’s lawyering strategy during the Civil Rights Movement. Marshall strategically argued cases for decades which chipped away at segregation little by little, so that when Brown v. Board came around — as unpopular as it was — it was more palatable than it would’ve been had it not come after years of tilling the ground of public opinion to make it ready for change.

Marshall, like Harry Edwards, understood we have to deal with the Al Campanises of our world, because Campanises and Phil Robertson are not one-offs. They are canaries in the coal mine, warning that many everyday people are only gradations of Phil Robertson. That’s why Harry Edwards observed, “It’s good that I have a person in-house who knows how they think.”

This is also why firing Phil Robertson wasn’t a morally courageous thing to do. It was the response that required the least from us — from A&E, the Robertsons, their fans, their critics, and the viewing public. Simply firing Robertson lets us off the hook from having to deal with the Al Campanises of reality television.

The challenge of a democratic society is to nudge by our practices, persuade with dialogue, and humanize through experience to lead people away from their bad and bigoted ideas.

If “everyone is entitled to their opinion” means entitled to have the rest of us respect their opinion and treat is an equal contender for truth, then, no, everyone is not entitled to their opinion. We’re only entitled to what’s substantiated by facts, what we have logical grounds to believe.

Free speech is only a virtue only insofar as it presupposes a polis with minds sufficiently open to jettison bad information for newer, better information born of new experience, societal nudging, and persuasion. Access to our fellow citizens’ minds is the only way democracy will work. It’s what classical conservatism teaches is indispensable to modernity, indispensable to being a civilized people.

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Charles Badger

Charles Badger has been a columnist for The Washington Times Communities section since 2013. He is a Republican political strategist, speechwriter, and former aide to a Member of Congress, currently working in disaster relief logistics & communications. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Berea College.

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