I remember once speaking out in class when I was in college to defend political correctness. My argument at the time was that, essentially, all the mid-90s furor over what labels to use when referring to people was really just a matter of courtesy. It was polite to avoid any term that someone might find offensive. Plain and simple, said nineteen year old me.
And while I still see a germ of truth in what I said way back then, I must admit, naturally, that it is not simple at all. Those battles in the culture wars weren’t just about not hurting people’s feelings; they were about trying to advance a particular agenda, a vision of a pluralistic America that negated the agonies of racism and oppression with jargon.
I see something similar in the wave of outrage currently swirling around A&E’s bafflingly popular series Duck Dynasty. In an interview with GQ magazine, the patriarch of the family at the center of the program said some pretty offensive things about gays.
First, the obvious: This gentleman, Phil Robertson, was wrong. Claiming a Biblical code that includes no sense of the nuance of the original Greek, he labeled homosexuality a “sin,” and dwelled rather crassly on the mechanics of gay sex, confusing as opponents of equality often do, a sex act with a personality make-up. His ignorance here is rank. Comparing a vagina to an anus, Robertson seems to argue that the logic of human anatomy is on his side. What he, and most anyone standing alongside him in this debate, fails to understand is that sexuality is not simply about the plumbing. It’s about the wiring in our brains, too, and some people are naturally wired not to form attachments, sexual or romantic, with the opposite sex.
Curiously, most of the furor about his comments has dwelt on the remarks about gays, but he made equally ignorant statements about race relations in the South, portraying African-Americans under segregation as happy and content. “No one was singing the blues,” says Robertson in those bucolic “pre-entitlement” days when no one had come along to foul the poor Negro mind with ideas about welfare or, you know, those pesky civil rights they’re always clamoring for.
Again, this is rank ignorance, folks.
A&E’s reaction to the flap was very similar to the spirit of the proponents of “political correctness” in the 90s. They saw something offensive and they tried to stamp it out. They suspended him from the show.
Robertson has been quoted as saying that these people have “no moral compass.” Were that true, though, A&E would’ve looked the other way, tacked some disclaimer about the views of the Robertson family not reflecting the views of the corporation and continued counting the inexplicable millions that this show apparently generates.
But they reacted differently. They do have a moral compass. So does Robertson. The two just point in different directions.
A&E is part of the pluralistic world of the twenty-first century and, as such, the decision makers there wanted to send a strong message about this type of ignorance. Despite the caterwauling from right wingers about free speech (something they venerate quite selectively), this has nothing to do with the first amendment. Implying that A&E can’t stop broadcasting a show with someone they find offensive would be demanding they surrender their free speech rights.
Still, there is something unsettling in the knee-jerk response to that-which-we-do-not-approve-of. Take another example that was recently in the news–though, admittedly, not nearly so much as the Duck Dynasty case.
Apparently a PR exec named Justine Sacco tweeted the following on December 13th:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
On the surface, this comment reads as every bit the ignorant swill as Robertson’s, but I’m not so sure. Unlike his rather predictable “white trash” bias, I’m not comfortable passing judgement on Sacco’s remark. There are all manner of possible readings, but all of them involve some degree of irony. I don’t know who Sacco imagines her Twitter audience to be, but it seems possible to me that she could have followers who know that her joke could be just as much a commentary on notions of race as racist. It’s pretty easy to misread 140 characters.
But, our outrage cannot abide any such subtlety. Phil Robertson could, maybe, lose his lucrative show. I’m fairly certain, though, that he and his family will not suffer unduly for the loss. They’ve already banked quite a bit of cash through their arrangement with A&E and, if worse comes to worst, they could just go back to supporting themselves solely by doing whatever it is they do with ducks–which was the point of the show, after all.
Justine Sacco, though, may have a harder time. She wasn’t a public figure–Yes, she worked in PR, but my understanding is that this was not a company twitter feed–but nevertheless her tweet has now cost her her job.
I tend to think that the purpose of this outrage–in both cases–is not to silence people, not to suppress free speech, but to communicate that vision of a pluralistic world by sending a clear message against racism and intolerance.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think that message is so clear.
It might come off sounding a little bit like, “Think our way, or else!” I don’t think that society has any vested interest in that sort of dynamic. In fact, even a casual student of history can see where a society with that mindset ends up.
So perhaps Ms. Sacco deserves a chance to explain herself without being canned.
And maybe A&E is wasting a golden opportunity. Instead of killing Duck Dynasty and disappointing its (surprisingly many) fans, why not engage Mr. Robertson? Why not invite some social thinkers from outside his sphere down to the duck plantation or whatever the heck this show is about and film that. Let’s see old Phil talk to some real life gays who can explain that it’s not all about the plumbing or maybe some black folks who remember Jim Crow and might be able to broaden his view of things.
Engage, instead of squash.
I, too, want a world where ignorance like Robertson’s is a thing of the past, but it matters how we get there.