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December 2013

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A&E/Duck Dynasty Fight Demonstrates How the Marketplace of Ideas Has Devolved

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society

In perhaps one of the most boneheaded business decisions ever made, A&E decided to sabotage its rating juggernaut, Duck Dynasty, in a fit of PC rage over comments from Phil Robertson about homosexuality in an article by GQ. Robertson, in a manner one might expect from a plainspoken outdoorsman from Louisiana, rather crudely expressed his personal inability to relate to same sex attraction through comparison of the various sexual organs involved. While both logically unconvincing of anything and potentially distasteful to the prudish, the statement hardly represented an attack on anyone.

He also he expressed the rather orthodox Christian view that homosexuality is a sin. More specifically, he listed homosexuality among a host of other sins he sees as plaguing the nation, but since adulterers have no grievance group, homosexuality is the only one we’ve heard a big stink about. He also prefaced the discussion with this:

“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.”

And then he followed up with:

“We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.”

And in a separate statement he added:

“However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.”

How bigoted and closed-minded of him. Oh wait, no, I’m confusing him with those who think silencing others is the best response to hearing anything disagreeable.

I don’t bring up Phil Robertson’s views because I necessarily share them. Some I do and some I don’t, but I’m not starting with the same set of principles as Phil Robertson, so I frequently reach different conclusions. What I did want to talk about, however, was the entirely inappropriate response to his expression from both sides.

First, the attacks on Phil Robertson seem to align with a troubling trend regarding the manner in which the modern left is engaging in political discourse. Which is to say, they aren’t. Rather than debate opponents, they ostracize them. They turn any expression of opposing views into de facto evidence of some moral deficiency (or, if they’re in academia, into evidence of a mental disorder) on part of the speaker that absolves anyone else of the need to hear, process or think critically about what they have to say. Even the mere act of organizing to express views and advance common interests is evidence of some nefarious conspiracy or shady behavior.

These are sad developments for American political discourse that undermine the functioning of our republican system. But the response from the right doesn’t always hit the mark, either.

In defending Phil Robertson from A&E’s boneheaded decision, some – including politicians like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal – have cited the First Amendment. This is a red herring that serves only to confuse the issue. The First Amendment protects the right of the people to speak without infringement by government. It says nothing of how other private citizens can respond to speech. If anything, the First Amendment is firmly on A&E’s side, as it protects the right of association, which includes the right to not associate, at their pleasure.

Unfortunately, the right of association is not universally supported by either the courts or the left, which while cheering A&E’s self-destructive overreaction, also oppose the right of other businesses to choose their own clientèle, so long as those clientèle belong to a PC-approved victim group (hint: that excludes Christians). Nevertheless, it is the freedom to associate that matters here. A&E ought to be able to fire whomever they please to advance the chosen vision of their brand.

Part of the problem is linguistic. “Free speech” has evolved to refer to more than just the First Amendment right to speak without government interference, but also the general public desire to encourage a marketplace of ideas through respect for different points of view. Some of then erroneously used the First Amendment as a stand-in for the latter definition of “free speech,” when it really only applies to the former. Thus confusion is unfortunate, as it undermines their case.

Dragging the First Amendment into the discussion of A&E decision to punish Phil Robertson for expressing a widely held religious view that singled out no person or group of people for proposed harm allows those who freely cheer the silencing of opponents to correctly point out that the government did not silence Robertson (indeed, no one did), and therefore A&E is in the right. But that’s not the issue. The issue should be our troubling and growing acceptance of a culture of intimidation that not only seeks to shout down those who utter views not considered politically correct, but which actively seeks to bring them personal harm in retaliation.

The First Amendment itself may not be implicated by A&E’s suspension of Robertson, or with the groups which frequently call for similar responses in other cases, but the principles and desire to promote a healthy and robust civic and political culture which led to the amendment’s inclusion in the Bill of Rights are at the very center of the matter.