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Bigotry, Duck Dynasty, and Courage

Rob Tisinai

January 6th, 2014

I don’t think we’re learning the right lesson from the uproar over Phil Robertson, A&E’s Duck Dynasty star and sex-with-minors advocate. The real lesson is this:

We know we’re right and we know we can show it. Let’s have the courage of that conviction.

I haven’t blogged much the past few months so I missed the initial furor, but on December 18 I did post this on Facebook:

I thought what the Duck Dynasty guy said was reprehensible, but I’m not thrilled about A&E him suspending from his show for it. Obviously A&E has the right to do whatever they please within the parameters of the contracts they sign, but if we’re going to silence stupid arguments, I’d rather do it by pointing out their flaws rather than punishing the speaker. Certainly, if this were turned around and someone hated what I was saying, I’d rather they engaged my statements instead of punishing me into shutting up.

One hundred and thirty-five comments later, I can say it’s my most controversial status update ever. It wasn’t deeply argued. It just focused on my gut reaction to A&E’s suspension of Robertson. When I looked deeper, I found two sources of my misgiving.

One is simply that I tend to sympathize with the person over the corporation. A&E is not a person (Citizens United notwithstanding), and I want to give our corporate overlords as little control over our lives as possible. I understand they can restrict my speech in the workplace and on the job, but I’d like to feel as though the rest of my life is the rest of my life. I’d hate to be called into my boss’s office and told, “You’ve written some pretty harsh things about opponents of same-sex marriage, so we’re letting you go.”

Of course, when it comes to Robertson, it’s easy to argue against this position. For instance, your advocacy of certain views outside the workplace might ruin your effectiveness on the job. I thought it was perfectly reasonable for Bank of America to tell viciously anti-gay Frank Turek, You can’t publish books and go on the radio maligning an entire segment of our workforce and then expect us to hire you to conduct trust-building exercises with them, for fuck’s sake! (Not a direct quote.)

Similarly, A&E might decide Robertson is too damaging to the show’s ratings or the network’s brand. In that case, people aren’t being fired for the content of their views, or for expressing them, but for making themselves bad at what they were hired to do. Also, given the presence of an A&E rep in the room during the interview, it’s easy to argue that Robertson was actually at work and not speaking on his own time. Ultimately, I’d be happier if A&E fired or suspended Robertson for business reasons than because he said something I detest.

But another factor is this: I don’t like attempts to silence people just because they say things that some find offensive.

Let me be clear. I’m not merely talking about the sort of hate speech laws they have in Europe against offense and insult, laws which I’m glad are unconstitutional here. No, I’m also worried by the sort of attitude that says: Let’s create such an uproar that no person will dare say such things again in public, even if it’s what they really believe.

That’s at the root of my worry about the calls to fire Robertson. Instead of Shut him down, shut him down, shut him down!, I’ll go with Thomas Jefferson, who said:

For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.

That’s a great fundamental principle. It’s the difference between showing why someone’s beliefs are so wrong (so very wrong) instead of just shunning them into silence.

But the shunners do have a reply…

What about the harm done to gay kids who hear such damaging public speech? 

I was one of those gay kids in western Pennsylvania in the 70s. And it did harm me. But the problem is that shunning homophobes into public silence won’t protect gay kids.  As long as these views are held privately, gay kids will still hear them. From classmates and family, in churches and schools — they’ll hear them. What they won’t hear is our reply, because we won’t be there in those private spaces to give it. Those kids will grow up being told:

 Everybody knows homosexuality is wrong — even the gays, in their corrupted hearts —  but these days people can only say what’s politically correct. All this pro-homosexual propaganda is just them trying to make Christianity illegal.

That’s the persecution complex percolating through anti-gay websites. That’s what they really believe.

If these beliefs show up only in anti-gay echo chambers, then we’ll never have a chance to rebut them head on. It’s not enough for gay kids to hear positive, affirming messages in the media. They need to know there are real answers, real replies, to the bigoted rhetoric they hear in private. The only way to do that is to keep the debate public. And this is where we need to have the courage of our convictions. Here are three ways we need to trust ourselves, three ways we can be confident victory belongs to our side.

1. The truth is with us.

I hope I don’t have to convince anyone of this. The whole point of this site, its raison d’être, is to refute anti-gay lies and mythology — and not just for this blog, but for an army of blogs and commenters out there. Our best opportunities come from their most public statements. If we drive that bigotry underground it’ll do nothing but fester, and it will fester in the minds of those gay kids. The best thing we can do for them is win the public debate. The worst thing would be to shut the public debate down before it’s actually won.

2. The other side is its own best opponent.

People don’t always respond to logic and debate. Research has shown how people make complex decisions: As Daniel Kahneman writes, “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” Instead of asking, Why is or isn’t it bad to be gay?, people will substitute Which side do I like/trust/feel more comfortable with?

Fortunately we’ve reached a point where the wishy-washy middle is uncomfortable with unadorned homophobic bigotry. The more vile the homophobia, the more vicious and disgusting — the more you and I wish it had never been said aloud — the more it will shift those people in the middle to support us. The more it will make them say, I certainly don’t want to be associated with that. The more it will push even lesser homophobia into the fringe.

3. Bigotry runs broad and deep.

Bigotry a poisonous swamp. It’s not a puddle with muck on top and clear water underneath. It just gets filthier as you diver deeper, and it taints everything around it. Look at Phil Robertson. First we heard about his quote paraphrasing the Bible.

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.

After the calls for his firing, we learned about this:

They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.

People might shrug or nod at theological statements, but they’ll back away from a direct and vicious attack on their friends. Then came this bit on marriage and young girls:

These boys are waiting ’til they get to be about 20 years old before they marry ‘em. Look, you wait ’til they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.

And finally this:

That’s why they run jet aircraft into buildings, because they’re under control of the evil one, that’s why they rob and kidnap and rape and pillage, because they’re under control of the evil one. That’s why they murder, from the Nazis, to the Shintoists, to the communists to this latest crop!…

Because all of them, those four groups, 80 years of history, they all want to conquer the world, they all rejected Jesus, and they’re all famous for murder. Nazis, Shintoists, communists, and the Muhammadists. Every one of them, the same way.

(“Shintoists,” by the way, includes over 80% of the Japanese population.)

Again: the truth is with us, the other side is its own best opponent, and bigotry runs broad and deep. That means our first response to hateful rhetoric from a prominent figure should be to publicize it and then dig deeper. Then we can frame the issue as, Do you want to be part of this bigotry? Instead, with Robertson, his supporters successfully framed it as, Do you want to be fired for quoting the Bible? We’ll lose that question.

Robertson gives us a great chance to show that homophobia isn’t a principled moral stand, but generally comes bundled with a whole set of toxic views. That’s not random chance; that’s the corrupting nature of bigotry. Whenever we show that, we take a step forward.

One last thought: Our cause is winning because each year more straight people come to know us as friends, neighbors, family, and colleagues. They see first-hand that folks like Robertson are tragically wrong. Our opponents’ only chance to defeat us is to keep us closeted, invisible, and silent. Our best chance to defeat them is to make sure everyone out there hears what they have to say. What a heartening moral truth that is.

Comments

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Marcus
January 6th, 2014 | LINK

Well-argued and uplifting article, Timothy.

Rob Tisinai
January 6th, 2014 | LINK

Thanks. With all props to Timothy, this is not his piece.

Marcus
January 6th, 2014 | LINK

I don’t know how it happened, but I somehow misread the byline.

My apologies to you, Rob, and to Timothy as well. And my comment stands, minus the attribution error. (Good to see you posting again, Rob!)

tristram
January 6th, 2014 | LINK

Rob – this was well conceived and superbly articulated. Thank you for verbalizing a set of thoughts the fragments and shadows of which I had been wrestling with since this issue arose. Now I can snip and paste (and credit, of course).

Mark F.
January 6th, 2014 | LINK

Well written and argued.

Ben in Oakland
January 6th, 2014 | LINK

It’s what I keep saying over and over and over again. You just stated and argued it better.

They can’t say that gay is a sin and leave it at that. Al the rest of their toxicity always shows up, showing that it is no more bout sincere religious or moral belief than it is about holiness, to quote Mr. chambers.

Scratch a bigot, and most likely, there will be even more bigotry beneath the surface.

Joseph Singer
January 6th, 2014 | LINK

What ticks me off is that A&E re-instated him not because what he initially said was so horrible but because A&E saw that this dust up was *good* for them so that they can increase their ad rate and they’ll no doubt have more eyeballs looking at this side show. It’s about money. It’s always about money.

Neil
January 6th, 2014 | LINK

A&E’s actions just struck me as cynical risk management. Robertson was suspended during a non filming period, so no consequence for production. During that suspension the executives at A&E could gauge the likely response from subscribers and advertisers.

The suspension then allows them to look like they were responding to sensitivities, then when sensitivities proved to be no threat to the bottom line they were able to reinstate Robertson to loud acclaim from his fans, some of whom may well become new viewers.

Controversial views will always draw their detractors. Sadly, in this instance, A&E’s actions just fuel the conspiracy minded opinions of folks who imagine there’s some ‘Elders of Zion’ like gay hierarchy controlling their world. Such people will see evidence of that in many places.

Meanwhile, aside from LGBT folk and African-Americans, I would’ve thought Christians one of the groups to be most offended by Robertson’s comments. Paraphrasing from 1 Corinthians to claim Paul was advocating judgement and an exclusive social order is the kind of distorted cafeteria Christianity I would’ve thought should earn him the status of heretic.

Hyhybt
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

Best thing I’ve read on the subject yet.

Hunter
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

Rob —

Good to see you back.

I’m generally sympathetic to your position — I also think that bigots should have absolute freedom to speak their minds, because that just drives more people into our camp — but there is one point that bothers me, although I can’t quite pin it down: we’re dealing with a context in which facts have no particular weight. It’s a product of he said/she said journalism; the “both sides do it” meme; bigots allowed air time on outlets such as Fox, where none of their lies or distortions are challenged; and reporting and commentary, not only in the press but in the blogosphere, that doesn’t deal with the real issues. (How easily did too many commentators wind up defending themselves against charges of “bullying” Papa Duck and forget about attacking his disgusting comments?)

Of course, the only remedy for that is to ignore the right-wing attacks — and they are past masters at flipping situations on their heads — and stick to the script — our script, not theirs.

As for A&E’s actions, I have no faith in the integrity of corporations. Their idea of “social responsibility” is lining the pockets of their investors. No surprises from A&E on this one.

Victor
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

Though at first blush I would say I agree with your well-stated arguments – and have made the same argument myself – I would like to play devil’s advocate and say that allowing hateful speech free reign can, and has, led to unintended and lethal consequences.

The sentiments expressed by the Nazis were only public vocalizations of long-held private beliefs about Jews. Uttering them aloud, without negative consequence, encouraged more people to join the chorus. Whatever countering voices there might have been were drowned out and driven into silence by a growing mob mentality that saw no downside to publicly articulating hatreds long kept hidden.

Today this same dynamic is at play in both Uganda and Russia. Whatever countering pro-gay individuals there are in these places are terrorized into silence because all the social constraints on hate-speech have been removed.

If the beleaguered community in question – in these examples LGBT folks and their friends and families – do not have the activist, legal, and monetary resources and infrastructure needed to mount a powerful defense, they are vulnerable.

Here in the U.S. we have countless organizations and the vast amounts of money that make crushingly loud responses to homophobia possible. If we did not it would be open-season on us all the time as those who had no opinion would shrug and slide in behind the denigrating voices, artificially conflating their influence until the once-private echo-chamber our opponents have lived in becomes an amphitheater of hate-speech that feeds on itself.

I think it is worth pointing out that it is not without good reason that laws curtailing hate-speech exist in Europe: they have directly lived with the consequences of such unbridled sentiments – both the social scars and the physical devastation of two World Wars that were born of hate.

Though the U.S. certainly fought in those same wars, they were not fought on our soil. We have never had to rebuild our cities because of the devastation which began with unchecked hate-speech and the propaganda that was fueled by it.

Perhaps it is all relative; I honestly don’t know. I think the talking heads at GLAAD and HRC would have been better off defending free speech (we wouldn’t want to be silenced by A&E for pro-gay sentiments) but using Robertson’s hateful diatribe to shine a light on the reality of the lives of LGBT people whom it is still perfectly legal to fire simply for existing in 29 of these United States. Instead we sacrificed a valuable teachable moment and allowed the discussion to framed on the defense of poorly quoted Bible passages.

DJ
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

Exactly, Rob. Great post!

Ben in Oakland
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

I read it again rob, and I believe you have it exactly right. The answer to bad speech is more speech.

Marcus
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Victor: I think it goes without saying that defenders of free speech are defending societies in which everyone is equally free to speak, not societies in which the government or its cronies limit freedom of speech to those in line with their agenda. Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia fall under the latter.

Victor
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Marcus: Agreed. But a free society is not an absolute. Hitler’s Germany evolved with blinding speed from the comparatively open society that had characterized the Weimar Republic. Similarly, Putin’s Russia had decriminalized homosexuality and had been a progressively opening society before political troubles propelled Putin to capitalize on emerging antigay sentiment to rebuild his base, giving a national megaphone to what had been isolated localized antigay voices. Seemingly overnight what had seemed to be a country on the verge of modernity became a through back to Stalinism. There is no telling what could happen in the U.S. in a few years under a religious conservative president and even one additional conservative Supreme Court judge. It is only LGBT money, organizational infrastructure, and open positioning in public office, business, and the media that could hope to stem a conservative tide sweeping across the U.S. Such a national shift would encourage the rise of the Duck Dynasty Nation. That is the reason why the Anti-Defamation League makes a grand point of being extremely vocal in the face of anti-Semitism in spite of the fact that Jews wield more power in the U.S. than most any other group. No one can take anything for granted.

Cass
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

Victor –

I’m with you on that.

Marcus
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Victor – Agreed, there are no absolutes. But a culture that, generally speaking, embraces unfettered speech and peaceful dissent as opposed to silencing as a method of social control is less likely to dismantle its liberties, in my view.

An antigay president might be able to employ the bully pulpit to stoke homophobia, but leading the US down the path of dictatorship is a different story.

Victor
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Marcus: Hope you’re right. I feel our hard-fought freedoms hang by a thread. The same judicial fiat that reversed the SCOTUS Hardwick decision with the Lawrence decision 17 years later – to the horror of conservative homophobes – could easily work in reverse if the make up of the court changes and a contrived test-case (the way Citizens United was engineered) was brought before SCOTUS. There is nothing about this country that is not volatile and unstable. Our enemies are armed, dangerous and – quite literally – mad.

Victor
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Marcus: I might add that representative democracy in this country has never been rendered less effective than it is now. Citizens on both sides of the aisle are clamoring for BIG change. We would be powerless against a charismatic demagogue who controlled both houses of Congress and the judiciary, and was supported by Big Business. Remember: both Hitler and Putin were elected by representative democracies before they morphed into dictators. They just needed to push the right jingoistic buttons about “rebuilding” their countries, enflame the right emotional fears, and pass the right curtailments on freedom in the name of public safety. Don’t think for a second it couldn’t happen here.

Marcus
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Victor: I’m not studied in American political history, and so will refrain from opining on the historical evolution or deevolution of American democracy, but I don’t believe that the First Amendment is to blame for jingoism or demagoguery, nor that repealing freedom of speech would create a freer society in the long run.

Maurice Lacunza
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

Regarding the idea of protecting younger gay who are coming up: “what is spoken in private” cannot be argued against in public.
Thus, it IS better that speech not be silenced. We can provide another point of view for gay kids to consider.

Jefferson had it right and so did Rob!

Victor
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Marcus: I apologize to anyone who thinks that I have been advocating for the repeal or even slightest diminution in the First Amendment. That was not my intention. I even said GLAAD and HRC should have vocally supported Robertson’s right to voice his opinion because we wouldn’t want A&E to silence a pro-gay statement, either. My position is that people should be held accountable for their speech if it crosses the line. I don’t think Robertson’s statement crossed a line. He did not advocate violence or argue for abridgement of LGBT civil rights. He uttered a stock ill-articulated statement based on his erroneous interpretation of the Bible. His statement should have been met with a powerful refutation, not calls for punitive action. Because the latter only made him a martyr. If we don’t do a better job of articulating an appropriate response to such utterances those who speak such trash will continue to be validated and the value of free speech will erode. We must give as good as we get so the public consciousness is never primed and ready for the next homophobic demagogue in the wings. History has shown us repeatedly what can happen. Free speech will be the first thing to go.

Spunky
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

Rob, I really love your post. What a way to return to return from your hiatus!

I agree with pretty much all of what you said. I’m not as uncomfortable with A&E’s punishment as you are, but what you said is true: people should have focused more on the hurtfulness and stupidity of Robertson’s remarks, rather than how to to punish him.

Marcus
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Victor: I realized, after posting my response, that I may have misunderstood your argument. (I frequent certain forums where a good portion of the membership is anti-First Amendment, so that may have been a contributing factor.) Sorry, and I appreciate the clarification!

Victor
January 7th, 2014 | LINK

@Marcus: No problem! The one thing that has been bugging me during all this Mad Quakery has been where was the outrage from the NAACP, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson? I am hoping that I just missed it by looking at gay blogs. Does anyone know if there was ever an official rebuke for the assertion African Americans have had it peachy since the Days of Rage? And, while we’re at it, if Robertson’s had been exclusively a ridiculous rant against African Americans without a mention of LGBT people or the wonders of vaginas, would A&E have put him back on the air as being “entitled to his opinion”? We remain the only group it is okay to shit on.

Neon Genesis
January 8th, 2014 | LINK

What I’m outraged about is the lack of visible condemnation of Phil Robertson’s views by the supposed moderate Christian world. While lots of people have defended Robertson and made lots of noises about free speech, to the best of my knowledge, Jesse Jackson has been the only prominent Christian figure to stand with gays and condemn Robertson’s views. The rest of the Christian world is either endorsing Phil’s views or they’re completely silent as far as I know. Where are all the liberal gay friendly Christians at?

Ben in Oakland
January 8th, 2014 | LINK

Why, NG, they’re standing just over there, congratulating themselves that they’re NALT.

I noticed this myself. EJ Dionne wrote a column about it, but apart from that and a few letters to the editor– one of which that I wrote myself– no one had too much to say about it from that perspective. Everyone was too wrapped up in the A&E tempest in a peepot.

I agree with Jim and Timothy that way too much was made of this duckin’ idiot, yet nevertheless, something could have been said by people who really wanted to show that they’re NALT.

Neon Genesis
January 8th, 2014 | LINK

Yeah, where’s Karen Armstrong, or John Shelby Spong, or Rev Walton Gaddy, or Jim Wallis of Sojourners, or any of the numerous straight ally celebrities at? Not a single one said anything in support of gays.

Ben In Oakland
January 8th, 2014 | LINK

Wallis wouldn’t anything like that if he had a mouthful of it. I don’t think too much of him.

Neon Genesis
January 8th, 2014 | LINK

In fairness to the liberal Christian allies, maybe they just didn’t think this controversy was important enough to speak out about but I still would have appreciated a kind word of encouragement and support from them. It should also be pointed out that GLAAD and the gay community didn’t actually call for Robertson to be suspended. That was purely the decision of A&E yet the Religious Right acts like this was all the fault of the evil militant gay agenda when in reality this was all the fault of money.

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