The past 24 hours have seen lots of hand-wringing over cable channel A&E’s decision to suspend Phil Robertson, the patriarch in the hit show “Duck Dynasty,” for controversial remarks he made regarding homosexuality. Robertson expressed the belief that homosexuality is a sin akin to promiscuity and bestiality, and based his ideas in scripture. After his suspension, the backlash began immediately, with countless fans taking to Facebook to decry A&E for persecuting him for his Christian beliefs.
Welcome back to the ugly and tribal culture wars, where one group expresses an in-group opinion or belief, and a different group, which disagrees, becomes offended and demands action. In this case, the Christian community and other fans of the show by and large want Robertson reinstated, calling this a violation of his First Amendment rights and lamenting the pernicious effect of too much political correctness.
Culture wars are certainly nothing new in America, but in a request for civility, and in an attempt to inject some thoughtfulness into the situation, I’d like us to consider the alternative to this being hashed out in the media through intense, heated cultural back and forth.
The truth is that society is always changing, and it can change in one of two ways. The first is the way we see today – one group holds a view regarding where society should go, and another opposes. The search for an answer that reflects who we are is thrown to the private sphere, where the media, television producers, thought leaders, bloggers, journalists, preachers, teachers – indeed, everyone – is allowed to weigh in. We weigh in with our dinner table conversations, what we write online, what we choose to watch, to purchase, to volunteer for. Our decisions shape our culture, and we as a nation reach different opinions based on what becomes popular consensus over time.
Though many may wish A&E made a different decision, the truth is that the network reacted to Robertson’s comments because they feared a backlash from their more socially moderate viewers. Airing the show and promoting the family’s lifestyle serves as tacit approval from the network, fair or not, and it’s worth noting that both sides of the culture war are guilty of calling on networks to drop individuals they find offensive. Regardless of whether this turns out to be a good decision, it’s important to note that the media’s role in society is to both reflect and lead culture. It’s always a picture both of who we are and who we are becoming, and that tension can be incredibly difficult, particularly on thorny issues.
This makes situations like these all the more important, and gives them an incredibly positive role in our society no matter how ugly they get, because they cause us to sit down and think. Do you side with Phil? Do you side with those who found his remarks offensive? Why? How should you express those convictions, and how will this influence your behavior in the future?
The alternative to working through these very real and very tough issues privately is that the government works them out for you. And in many countries, this is the case. Examples abound from Russia to China to Uganda to France, where certain privately held beliefs are marginalized and declared illegal by the state.
It’s important to keep in mind what didn’t happen to Phil Robertson after his remarks – namely, he didn’t go to jail. While A&E may have decided to end the business relationship, no one came in the middle of the night to lock him up. He won’t ever participate in a trial where his actual liberty is at stake. The only trial he will take part in will be held on news outlets, at countless dinner tables across America and on social media.
This is in no way to deny the understandable fear and frustration being expressed by a group that sees itself becoming the out-group. Mediating institutions exist in our lives to create and enforce important societal norms. When you hold a norm very dear and view it as key to a flourishing society, only to see it marginalized, it is inevitable to fear for the future. Having deeply held moral convictions questioned, while being labeled as an outsider, has proven to have detrimental effects on groups in the past.
But the bigger fear for out-groups should be state coercion. The fact that America isn’t Russia, where anti-gay sentiment is popular but also promoted by the government, is to be celebrated. If you truly believe that societal norms are important, you should defend the fact that these norms are fought over privately. Because privately, we can influence each other’s lives with what we say and do. When something leaves the private sphere, the real persecution begins, and this will lead to out-groups losing in a very real way.
So while we each bemoan or celebrate A&E’s decision, let’’ pause for a moment and celebrate the fact that we live in a society where we can do that. Let’s exercise our First Amendment right and use our speech and our dollars to say what we think. After all, in these culture wars, a lot is at stake. But never confuse civil society working to establish a norm for actual persecution and coercion. It doesn’t do justice to America, and it is certainly an offense to those who suffer actual persecution daily.