I don’t think we’re learning the right lesson from the uproar over Phil Robertson, A&E’s Duck Dynasty star and sex-with-minors advocate. The real lesson is this:
We know we’re right and we know we can show it. Let’s have the courage of that conviction.
I haven’t blogged much the past few months so I missed the initial furor, but on December 18 I did post this on Facebook:
I thought what the Duck Dynasty guy said was reprehensible, but I’m not thrilled about A&E him suspending from his show for it. Obviously A&E has the right to do whatever they please within the parameters of the contracts they sign, but if we’re going to silence stupid arguments, I’d rather do it by pointing out their flaws rather than punishing the speaker. Certainly, if this were turned around and someone hated what I was saying, I’d rather they engaged my statements instead of punishing me into shutting up.
One hundred and thirty-five comments later, I can say it’s my most controversial status update ever. It wasn’t deeply argued. It just focused on my gut reaction to A&E’s suspension of Robertson. When I looked deeper, I found two sources of my misgiving.
One is simply that I tend to sympathize with the person over the corporation. A&E is not a person (Citizens United notwithstanding), and I want to give our corporate overlords as little control over our lives as possible. I understand they can restrict my speech in the workplace and on the job, but I’d like to feel as though the rest of my life is the rest of my life. I’d hate to be called into my boss’s office and told, “You’ve written some pretty harsh things about opponents of same-sex marriage, so we’re letting you go.”
Of course, when it comes to Robertson, it’s easy to argue against this position. For instance, your advocacy of certain views outside the workplace might ruin your effectiveness on the job. I thought it was perfectly reasonable for Bank of America to tell viciously anti-gay Frank Turek, You can’t publish books and go on the radio maligning an entire segment of our workforce and then expect us to hire you to conduct trust-building exercises with them, for fuck’s sake! (Not a direct quote.)
Similarly, A&E might decide Robertson is too damaging to the show’s ratings or the network’s brand. In that case, people aren’t being fired for the content of their views, or for expressing them, but for making themselves bad at what they were hired to do. Also, given the presence of an A&E rep in the room during the interview, it’s easy to argue that Robertson was actually at work and not speaking on his own time. Ultimately, I’d be happier if A&E fired or suspended Robertson for business reasons than because he said something I detest.
But another factor is this: I don’t like attempts to silence people just because they say things that some find offensive.
Let me be clear. I’m not merely talking about the sort of hate speech laws they have in Europe against offense and insult, laws which I’m glad are unconstitutional here. No, I’m also worried by the sort of attitude that says: Let’s create such an uproar that no person will dare say such things again in public, even if it’s what they really believe.
That’s at the root of my worry about the calls to fire Robertson. Instead of Shut him down, shut him down, shut him down!, I’ll go with Thomas Jefferson, who said:
For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.
That’s a great fundamental principle. It’s the difference between showing why someone’s beliefs are so wrong (so very wrong) instead of just shunning them into silence.
But the shunners do have a reply…
What about the harm done to gay kids who hear such damaging public speech?
I was one of those gay kids in western Pennsylvania in the 70s. And it did harm me. But the problem is that shunning homophobes into public silence won’t protect gay kids. As long as these views are held privately, gay kids will still hear them. From classmates and family, in churches and schools — they’ll hear them. What they won’t hear is our reply, because we won’t be there in those private spaces to give it. Those kids will grow up being told:
Everybody knows homosexuality is wrong — even the gays, in their corrupted hearts — but these days people can only say what’s politically correct. All this pro-homosexual propaganda is just them trying to make Christianity illegal.
That’s the persecution complex percolating through anti-gay websites. That’s what they really believe.
If these beliefs show up only in anti-gay echo chambers, then we’ll never have a chance to rebut them head on. It’s not enough for gay kids to hear positive, affirming messages in the media. They need to know there are real answers, real replies, to the bigoted rhetoric they hear in private. The only way to do that is to keep the debate public. And this is where we need to have the courage of our convictions. Here are three ways we need to trust ourselves, three ways we can be confident victory belongs to our side.
1. The truth is with us.
I hope I don’t have to convince anyone of this. The whole point of this site, its raison d’être, is to refute anti-gay lies and mythology — and not just for this blog, but for an army of blogs and commenters out there. Our best opportunities come from their most public statements. If we drive that bigotry underground it’ll do nothing but fester, and it will fester in the minds of those gay kids. The best thing we can do for them is win the public debate. The worst thing would be to shut the public debate down before it’s actually won.
2. The other side is its own best opponent.
People don’t always respond to logic and debate. Research has shown how people make complex decisions: As Daniel Kahneman writes, “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” Instead of asking, Why is or isn’t it bad to be gay?, people will substitute Which side do I like/trust/feel more comfortable with?
Fortunately we’ve reached a point where the wishy-washy middle is uncomfortable with unadorned homophobic bigotry. The more vile the homophobia, the more vicious and disgusting — the more you and I wish it had never been said aloud — the more it will shift those people in the middle to support us. The more it will make them say, I certainly don’t want to be associated with that. The more it will push even lesser homophobia into the fringe.
3. Bigotry runs broad and deep.
Bigotry a poisonous swamp. It’s not a puddle with muck on top and clear water underneath. It just gets filthier as you diver deeper, and it taints everything around it. Look at Phil Robertson. First we heard about his quote paraphrasing the Bible.
Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.
After the calls for his firing, we learned about this:
They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.
People might shrug or nod at theological statements, but they’ll back away from a direct and vicious attack on their friends. Then came this bit on marriage and young girls:
These boys are waiting ’til they get to be about 20 years old before they marry ‘em. Look, you wait ’til they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.
And finally this:
That’s why they run jet aircraft into buildings, because they’re under control of the evil one, that’s why they rob and kidnap and rape and pillage, because they’re under control of the evil one. That’s why they murder, from the Nazis, to the Shintoists, to the communists to this latest crop!…
Because all of them, those four groups, 80 years of history, they all want to conquer the world, they all rejected Jesus, and they’re all famous for murder. Nazis, Shintoists, communists, and the Muhammadists. Every one of them, the same way.
(“Shintoists,” by the way, includes over 80% of the Japanese population.)
Again: the truth is with us, the other side is its own best opponent, and bigotry runs broad and deep. That means our first response to hateful rhetoric from a prominent figure should be to publicize it and then dig deeper. Then we can frame the issue as, Do you want to be part of this bigotry? Instead, with Robertson, his supporters successfully framed it as, Do you want to be fired for quoting the Bible? We’ll lose that question.
Robertson gives us a great chance to show that homophobia isn’t a principled moral stand, but generally comes bundled with a whole set of toxic views. That’s not random chance; that’s the corrupting nature of bigotry. Whenever we show that, we take a step forward.
One last thought: Our cause is winning because each year more straight people come to know us as friends, neighbors, family, and colleagues. They see first-hand that folks like Robertson are tragically wrong. Our opponents’ only chance to defeat us is to keep us closeted, invisible, and silent. Our best chance to defeat them is to make sure everyone out there hears what they have to say. What a heartening moral truth that is.