Free Speech, Free Markets, and Professional Bearded Guy Phil Robertson

I am not a Duck Dynasty person.

I’ve met people who wear the t-shirts and I have a BFF with the DVDs and multiple posters. I attended a business event where one of the stars (the matriarch, maybe?) gave the keynote speech. But I have carefully avoided watching or thinking about the program, much as I do everything on A&E.

Unfortunately, a fellow named Phil Robertson, whom I take to be the family patriarch, said some fucked-up shit in GQ and social media will no longer allow me to not care. (By the way – was this interview an online exclusive or something? I glanced over the latest issue of GQ and didn’t see anything in there about it. What am I paying for if not controversy?)

Apparently this is Phil Robertson. I could have easily lived the rest of my life without knowing that.

The biggest thing everyone is up in arms about: Robertson’s comments on gay people. In what the writer describes as an “uncomfortable” turn in the conversation, Robertson says, “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

From there: “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,” he says. 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.”

I’m pretty sure this is a different Duck Dynasty bearded guy, but it’s still funny.

Well, this is a good time. Robertson thinks homosexuality is a sin – notably, he says it’s on par with pretty much every other sin, while bestiality is weirdly out of place. Yet, a lot of people agree with him that homosexuality is inherently wrong (and, we can assume, that gay marriage and such shouldn’t even be up for debate).

Big deal, the guy is just like almost half the country on that front. I don’t agree at all (like, I really want to marry Taylor Swift), but whatever, his opinion.

Far more problematic are his statements about race: “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.”

I suppose it could be true that Robertson had a happy childhood (tenant?) farming and never seeing any racial violence. But his dismissal of the reality of the Jim Crow South is not okay. It’s a perversion of history in the vein of (one of my favorite movies) Gone with the Wind.

Moreover, little camaraderie existed between blacks and poor whites in any part of the country. I mean, there was literally a popular song called, “I’d Rather Be a N—– Than a Poor White Man.”

Despite popular opinion, Mammy was not, in fact, about that life.

We’ve established that Robertson is arguably a jerk and, when it comes to history, woefully ignorant. A&E suspended him and debate rages over where we go from here.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but the next part of this process has little to do with me. I don’t watch the show. I doubt I’m even in the show’s target demographic. A&E has the right to keep Robertson or fire him – a decision motivated by economics.

Viewers are well within their rights to protest and boycott; the same goes for sponsors who wish to withdraw their support and funding. If Robertson’s presence negatively impacts the network’s bottom line, they can and should let him go. If not, even if it’s unpopular, it’s totally up to the network to keep him on. (Plus, there’s a good chance there’s a clause somewhere in his contract about public appearances, so there’s even less most of us know about).

Everything going down with Robertson and his show is going down in the private sector. A private corporation employs him as a private individual – they have a contract, which dictates the terms of his employment and compensation. And that’s why none of this has to do with free speech, despite what many conservatives say.

Ain’t nuthin’ but a (dropped) G thang.

If this were censorship, Robertson’s comments would have never made it to press. He’d be arrested for hate speech or something. He has shared his religious convictions and personal opinions, and some of those opinions are unpopular. They might be so unpopular that people will decide not to support him as a public figure, and then he may not be able to share his opinions with such a large audience.

And? I’ve got opinions, and maybe five people care. Popularity and mass appeal? Not rights. The Washington Post summarizes this issue well: “Freedom of religion does not come with a pulpit included.”

More importantly, Robertson is a public figure in 2013. He knew his statements were controversial but chose to share them anyway specifically because he could. If folks receive those statements poorly, then, hey, that’s life. Robertson is free to have his beliefs, and he is free to express them. However, freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.

What happens with Duck Dynasty is up to the powers that be in the wonderful world of television. What Phil Robertson says next is up to him. And how audiences react to their decisions? Well, that’s up to the people in the audience. This is America, folks. Just in case you’ve forgotten.


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