Monday, December 23, 2013

Quackers and Crackers: The Duck Dynasty Controversy

I've never seen the TV show Duck Dynasty, but from what I gather, it’s a coalescence of ZZ Top meets the Kardashians, with a bit of The Beverly Hillbillies thrown in. Judging from the publicity stills, the cast is composed of a family of six scraggly bearded rednecks. Duck Dynasty is what TV executives dub a reality show, which means it bears no relation to reality or anything in real life as you and I perceive the world around us. The show is in the news because of an interview one of its cast members gave to GQ Magazine (putting aside the obvious question of why a publication aimed at an audience of urbane gentleman would showcase scraggly bearded rednecks who hang out in marshes).

Phil Robertson, the self-described “bible-thumper”, in the course of the interview told GQ :

“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong . Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.” Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “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. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

This upset certain liberals and gay advocacy groups. Robertson also commented about how happy blacks were in the days of the Jim Crow South:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

This doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone, including blacks. Perhaps it is because they feel our “post-racial” society has advanced far enough beyond those days that it no longer matters what nonsense a cracker in a flannel shirt spouts. Or maybe homosexuals are a tad more sensitive.

Regardless, the ensuing din has proven politics makes strange bedfellows. Liberals, who should be supporting free speech, have declared that’s only true when it’s speech they believe in; while conservatives, who would normally argue a business should act in its shareholders’ interests by not alienating sponsors, instead are aghast a TV network would remove a potentially offensive TV star from the air.

Around digital water cooler known as the Web, discussions have revolved around whether Robertson’s First Amendment rights had been violated. This is what’s known as a red herring. The TV network is, of course, free to use its business judgment in deciding whether to dismiss an employee and the First Amendment is not applicable to corporations. The First Amendment is one of 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, which the Founding Fathers tacked onto the newly drafted Constitution to placate the concerns of some of the colonies so they would ratify it. The colonies, having just broken away from England, feared a strong central government and wanted some guarantees that there would be restrictions and limitations on the powers of the proposed federal government. Thus, the First Amendment is a restriction on what the government may do, and not a restriction on what individuals or corporations may do. That’s why it begins “Congress shall make no law…” and not “Corporations shall not…” So, there is no First Amendment issue involved here.

However, the First Amendment is not synonymous with free speech. What the First Amendment does, is protect the concept of freedom of speech from encroachment by the government. This is in recognition of the importance of the concept of freedom of speech –  to our society, and to democracy at large. But that concept goes beyond the First Amendment. As the French philosopher René Descartes said, “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”. Man is an intelligent creature, and as such, cannot help but think. It’s only natural that individuals wish to verbalize their thoughts. When individuals encounter facts, and interpret their perception of those facts, they arrive at opinions. Facts are objective statements; opinions are subjective interpretations of those facts. Thus, opinions cannot be right or wrong, or true or false. Their beliefs are often the result of indoctrination at an early age of a societal or religious belief system. So when self-professed bible-thumper Robertson says homosexuality is a disgusting sin, he is reiterating what he has been brought up to believe and what his religion has instilled within him. His comments are not any different from what the world’s major religions have preached for millennia or what the majority of the world agreed upon in the previous centuries. Even in the progressive United States, the American Psychiatric Association as recently as 1973 classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. While that view has changed in much of America, they obviously didn't get the memo in Russia, let alone in the Bayou.

If I were gay, I wouldn't be concerned about the ravings of a scraggly beard redneck who claims being homosexual will keep me out of his make-believe members only club in the sky after I die. I’d be more concerned with discrimination by people trying to keep me out of real places during my lifetime, and let the afterlife take care of itself.

However, what I find more distressing is the Orwellian concept of politically correct thought police penalizing expression. This inevitably results in a chilling effect, causing individuals to self censor their thoughts and speech, which is the antithesis of a free society. Certainly, some thoughts and speech will be offensive, ill-founded, and inciteful rather than insightful. But the free exchange of ideas is essential to the advancement of society and the proper functioning of a democracy. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  proposed the concept of a public “marketplace of ideas” where individuals could freely exchange their thoughts and the rational ones, like cream, would rise to the top and force the rhetoric to sink. Holmes’ concept advocates more speech as the best rebuttal to offensive speech.

I don’t want to live in a society where individuals are forced to repress their thoughts. I prefer to know which individuals, especially public figures, hold views abhorrent to me. Let them self-identify as bigots or racists, if they are foolish enough to do so.

As the gatekeeper to a medium that chooses which individuals to allow be heard by society, TV networks should be mindful of the chilling effect of punishing those individuals for expressing their opinion – however odious – in forums other than their own. As a free society, we need to jettison political correctness and allow public discourse, accepting that there will be opinions at variance with our own.   

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