The Duck Dynasty Succession Crisis

Posted by tobymuresianu on Dec 22, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts |

Phil Robertson’s comments were ignorant and his sermons were hateful. But causing his show to be cancelled does more harm than good. The best option would be for Robertson to go on TV with people from the groups he insulted – and have them actually explain their opinions. Here’s why.

(First, read the interview if you haven’t already. It’s very surprising how many people took the time to express their opinion online who have never read the original article. I think part of the reason we are so polarized is because we are getting our news from opinion pieces based on opinion pieces instead of reading the original story and drawing our own conclusions.)

Two things surprised me in the interview:

1. The original remarks about vaginas and anuses – which seem like moronic but typical shock jock stuff – are like the third most offensive thing in the article. The remarks implying black people were happier before civil rights and implying that Japanese and Muslims started wars because they didn’t believe in Christ are much worse. I think the fact they only “surfaced” a few days after the original furor points to how many people didn’t read the original piece.

2. The remarks are a small percentage of the article. Most of it, written from the perspective of the author, an NYC hipster type – portrays Phil in a positive light, mentioning his work helping quit drugs, adopting a biracial child and promoting adoption. Some conservatives have described the piece as a “hit job” but it isn’t, at all. On the other hand, it explains why some people like him so much. It also raises the questions of when we should be able to look past crazy religious and political beliefs when they don’t affect our relationship with someone, and whether it’s appropriate to treat him as a simple villain.

That said, the sermons that have come to light are more odious than anything that’s said in the article.

So, if he’s said awful things, why shouldn’t he be kicked off his show as a consequence?

First, it’s not a first amendment issue, legally speaking. I do think, though, that “free speech” is a cultural value that we have and is worth preserving. It’s somewhat ironic that for all the past worry about government censorship, we are now censoring ourselves – private party retaliation and outrage is the biggest impediment to speaking one’s beliefs. And while I think there’s a difference between expressing your every day beliefs and those that are hateful when you have a public role, the fact that his beliefs are not outside the norm for many people – in addition to being troubling on its face – makes reprisal seem more like censorship. Is it okay to suspend someone for repeating, when asked, a belief that a sizable portion of the US population believes?

But free speech aside, the larger reason he shouldn’t remain suspended is that no goals are accomplished by this, beyond a fleeting sense of justice being served. If the reason we don’t want public figures espousing hateful views is that they will spread, canceling the show and making him a martyr for his beliefs doesn’t stop it. Addressing the substance of his remarks is the best way to.

After all, the consequences of the show being cancelled (or suspending Phil indefinitely, which will lead to the show being cancelled) will be:

1) Right wingers will continue to feel persecuted, and that there is a double standard for liberal and conservative “free speech” in America. I don’t think Phil Robertson is the best example for this, but I do think there’s a grain of truth in other cases, with Alec Baldwin, Dan Savage and others getting passes right-wingers don’t get.

2) Duck Dynasty will be picked up by another network – it’s already had offers – and possibly become more conservative/political than before.

3) People who love Duck Dynasty – and there are a lot of them – will continue to be angry at the show they love being cancelled. It’s easy to write this off if you’re liberal, since liberals don’t watch or care about the show. But a lot of people really, really do. Imagine if Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad had said the same thing Phil did before its last season. Would liberals be as quick to write the show off? Or would they remember that there are all kinds of horrendous people in Hollywood – from Walt Disney to Jenny McCarthy to Tom Cruise – where people have largely looked the other way?

If the goal is to stop prejudice and hatred towards homosexuals and minorities, the best way isn’t to have them blamed for taking away something that people love. The best way is to show that they are regular, decent, reasonable people – to Duck Dynasty viewers, not so different from the Phil. It’s also important to address Phil’s idiotic opinions head on – for example, by mentioning that rather than black people “not singing the blues” before civil rights, they invented the blues. And that far from his assertions that Christian countries did not start wars, obscure historical events like World War 1, the American Civil War, the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and the Crusades all happened.

And no, I don’t think that Phil will repent and change his mind. But some viewers might change theirs – or at least harbor less antipathy towards liberals/gays/minorities if they understand their point of view, see them being willing to talk, and see Phil shaking hands with them.

Sure, it’s not perfect, and there are ways it could go wrong. But I think it’s the best option, and in any case it’s better to do the right thing and risk it being wrong than to not take the chance at all.

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