Last Christmas, it seemed like everyone in my family and my husband's family was talking about Duck Dynasty. We are all from the Midwest, which may be why the hunting, back-woods feel of the show held a certain charm. And there really were some funny parts. It seemed like mere mention of the show incited laughter from one corner or another. This Christmas, the families are still talking about Duck Dynasty. But this time no one is laughing.
In case you've been in a coma for the last week, here's a brief recap: Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the millionaire family featured on the A&E show, caused a shitstorm when he made homophobic remarks publicly. In an interview with GQ Magazine, he said the following:
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.
Later, he added:
Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. 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. 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.
And if all that wasn't bad enough, a 2010 sermon conducted by Phil Robertson surfaced, in which he said:
Women with women, men with men, they committed indecent acts with one another, and they received in themselves the due penalty for their perversions. 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. That's what you have 235 years, roughly, after your forefathers founded the country. So what are you gonna do Pennsylvania? Just run with them? You're doing to die. Don't forget that.
The reaction to all this was about what you'd expect. A lot of people went apeshit. A&E television suspended Robertson from the show for an undisclosed period. Then a lot of other people went apeshit, accusing A&E of unfairly reprimanding the man for his religious beliefs.
How many times do we need to say it? Religion may be a reason for a person's bigotry — but it's not an excuse. There is no excuse for bigotry. Just as infanticide is not an acceptable behavior — even though God did it in the Bible — so it goes for bigotry. Hate and prejudice are not luxuries afforded by religion, or by anything else for that matter. You don't get to be a dick just because you belong to a certain church or because you're old, or because you're from Louisiana, or because you just don't know any better.
Now, let's be clear: Thoughts are not behavior. If Phil Robertson thinks bigoted things because he thinks God wants him to think bigoted things, that's none of our business. But when those thoughts become behaviors (and, yes, speech is a behavior), then it's his responsibility — and his employer's — to answer for that behavior.
Now, some might say, "Fine. Phil Robertson's comments weren't 'protected' by his religion. And, fine, his speech is behavior. But what about free speech? What's the point of the First Amendment if we're not going to let people express their thoughts in a public forum without fear of reprisal?"
Well, the point of the First Amendment is to ensure that no one in this country is censored or arrested or prosecuted or executed by the goverment of the United States for anything they say. Of course there are some exceptions — incendiary speech that implies or incites certain behavior, for example. But, without question, Phil Robertson's remarks are protected by the First Amendment. Government shouldn't take action, and it hasn't.
But if you believe that the First Amendment protects Robertson from being publicly chastised, or from losing a job on a TV network, you are cheapening the freedom of speech. You are insulting all those people who are or have been imprisoned for stating their beliefs openly. Free speech is one of our most important rights, as citizen of this country, and it's nothing less than terrifying to think about countries, such as North Korea, that offer no such freedoms.
No one is putting Robertson in jail for saying homosexuals are evil, just like no one put comedian Daniel Tosh in jail for making jokes about gang raping an audience member at one of his gigs, and just like no one put MSNBC's Martin Bashir in jail after he told his viewers that someone should urinate and defecate in Sarah Palin's mouth.
Our country gives us the right to say some truly terrible things without fear of reprisal.
But A&E is not the government.
If I'm a public figure who says on the radio that black people are the source of evil because my Bible tells me so, I might very well lose fans, or get nasty mail, or be fired from my job. Why? Because I'm a racist, and because, just as I have the right to state my beliefs, my fellow citizens have a right to speak out against my racism.
And what kind of a precedent would my employers be setting if they allowed that sort of hateful speech to go unchecked? It would be like saying, "Yes, our employee stated her racist views publicly, and we're fine with that. So, hey, all you other racists out there, have at it! Say all the hateful comments you want! And to hell with all those men, women and children who hear your remarks and go home feeling demoralized, frustrated, saddened and tormented at the end of the day.
Any responsible company isn't going to let that behavior go. The company is going to reprimand me, at the very least. "Hey, no more of that, okay?" And that's what A&E did. They suspended Phil Robertson. A good hard slap on the hand to say, "No, we don't tolerate hate."
How we react as a society to celebrities who behave badly matters. We don't have to hate the celebrities, of course. We can understand that they come from different backgrounds or cultures or religions. We can understand their bigotry is rooted in ignorance. We can even forgive them and move on. But we mustn't respect that behavior, or excuse it, or let it go.
The government doesn't punish bigotry. But that's precisely what makes it so important that we do.