Be Careful What You Wish For

Phil Robertson and the Future of Free Expression

By Jeff Laird

A&E network recently suspended reality TV star Phil Robertson for voicing his opinion on (among other things) homosexual behavior, during an off-air interview with GQ magazine. He was soon reinstated, proving the suspension was really a passive-aggressive gesture, or a ratings stunt. All the same, the way this controversy played out is bad news for free speech, and great news for censorship. Foremost among those who ought to be worried is the LGBT political lobby. That might seem counter-intuitive, but it's a view summarized in six words:

Be careful what you wish for.

For what it's worth, I've never watched even one minute of Duck Dynasty. Faced with a picture of Phil Robertson a month ago, I wouldn't have known him from ZZ Top. And, until recently, I'd never read an article in GQ. So, I feel neither loyalty nor angst towards the show, the family, or the magazine. I'm also not a lawyer, so any legalese swirling behind the scenes is unknown to me. However, I do have extensive experience as a manager, which requires a pretty clear idea of what employers can and cannot demand of employees regarding religious expression. And, of course, the very site on which this post appears ought to make my stance on the Bible pretty clear.

All that said, once a person actually reads the article [1], it's clear the hyperventilating over "hate" and such is just plain ridiculous. Key to the issue are these words:
"We're Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television," he tells me. "You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off. We ought to just be repentant, turn to God, and let's get on with it, and everything will turn around."

What, in your mind, is sinful?

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."

We never, ever judge someone on who's going to heaven, hell. That's the Almighty's job. We just love 'em, give 'em the good news about Jesus—whether they're homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort 'em out later, you see what I'm saying?
Note, please, that Robertson also discussed drunkenness, greed, theft, and several other issues. Complaints that he "grouped" homosexuals with terrorists are absurdly out of context. Nothing said was hateful, nor an incitement to violence. It was an expression of his religious, moral views. It's hard to find fault with his words beyond personal disagreement, or a preference for a softer approach. Robertson is acting out the essence of free expression: stating an opinion which others are free to accept or reject.

Those supportive of A&E's initial decision note, correctly, that the first amendment does not guarantee "freedom from consequences". You have the constitutionally-protected right to alienate as many people as you want with your words. It would be nice if that's all there was to this controversy: free speech, free enterprise, Robertson made his bed, now he has to lie in it. But there's more to consider than just the first amendment. The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. Specific to this situation, it's illegal for employers to discriminate against religious beliefs, or participation in religion, through conditions of employment, pay, layoff, recall, and so forth. That would include discussion of one's religious convictions. In fact, employers are legally required to accommodate religious beliefs of employees, barring "undue hardship". And actions meant to intimidate employees into silence — like phantom suspensions, for instance — are still illegal.

Given that "Duck Dynasty" has been on the air for several years, and Phil Robertson's held his views far longer, A&E can't possibly claim they didn't know his stance. The family's strong Christian character has been part and parcel of their life since before the show first aired. It's highly unlikely Robertson would have signed a contract explicitly forbidding him from discussing his views. So, the "consequences" blade cuts both ways: A&E knowingly based a TV show around a person with well-known, clearly stated views. If they didn't want to anger those who disagree with Robertson, they ought not to have created or continued the show in the first place.

So, an employee, off the clock, stated his opinion on a moral issue. He said nothing violent, referenced the texts of his religion as a source, and did so in response to a specific question. His employer responded by saying, "we don't like your opinion, and neither do a few others, so we're suspending you". By any objective measure, that's not only censorship, but religious discrimination. Whether or not that would have held up in court, in this particular circumstance, I'm not qualified to say. But culturally speaking, it strengthens a dangerous precedent. So…

Be careful what you wish for.

Should we willingly turn a blind eye to discrimination, or intimidation, as long as the victim is saying something unpopular? We risk serious backlash by equating simple disapproval with hatred, and making such disapproval subject to censorship, termination of employment, and so forth. Even worse is declaring certain behaviors off-limits for any criticism, and automatically punishing anyone who speaks otherwise.

Make no mistake, there is an inconsistent set of standards at work, especially considering the context of recent statements made by other media personalities. To name just a few examples: LGBT activist Dan Savage [1] makes a habit out of hateful, violence-themed speech. Martin Bashir [2] said a female politician deserved to have someone defecate in her mouth. Oprah Winfrey pointedly said older white racists "just have to die" [3] , four words that would have set the internet on fire had they been used in any context by a Christian. Doug Ellin (of HBO's Entourage) recently tweeted that Duck Dynasty would be better if gay people shot at Phil Robertson [4] .

Nothing Robertson said rose to any such level, nor could it as easily be misconstrued as a pretense for aggression. Yet, the backlash against Robertson was greater, swifter, and more official than anything I am aware of against these persons. Talking heads such as Piers Morgan [5] seem very comfortable with the idea that their speech is protected, but the speech of others is not. Approving censorship for Robertson, without at least demanding the same for these others, is prejudice writ large. Excusing speech that is actually violent, hateful, or dishonest, while squelching speech that is merely disagreeable, is the worst kind of social hypocrisy.

Be careful what you wish for.

Those celebrating Robertson's brief suspension need to consider how it will feel, twenty years from now, if this same attitude towards speech and censorship is used by a different political party, and a different social mood, to squash their point of view. If mere disapproval of certain things is hate, what happens when someone new gets to define the "right" opinions? Do they really want to hand society a weapon they could easily be turned against them? If the LGBT community takes seriously the freedom to live and speak as one chooses, this Duck Dynasty situation ought to concern them as much as anyone else.

Would those supporting A&E's initial response likewise support an oil company who suspended a CEO for condemning Muslims, and saying he thought heterosexual sex was "gross"? What if A&E suspended a reality TV star for saying that people who eat meat are "murderers", citing the Hindu scriptures? Or, in the acid test for all censorship: would they really — honestly — have congratulated A&E for suspending someone who said heterosexuality was as irrational as fascism or astrology, and that no one ought ever read or pay attention to the Bible? Really? If free speech doesn't protect ideas some people find stupid or distasteful, then it doesn't really exist.

Free enterprise is one thing, but singling out certain views for special punishment, or absence of legal protection, is another. If Robertson had been legitimately hateful, violent, or even vulgar, it would be easier to justify his suspension. But a company which suspends an employee for the mere expression of his religious beliefs, particularly after making a great deal of money showcasing those beliefs, isn't expressing sensitivity; it's expressing hypocrisy and discrimination. To those applauding A&E for suspending Robertson, I can only say, again:

Be careful what you wish for.

Your children and grandchildren may well look back and condemn you, for handing over to government and corporations the power to pick and choose which opinions are fit to be expressed — or punished — in a "free" society.


TagsControversial-Issues  |  Current-Issues

comments powered by Disqus
Published 12-31-13