Duck Dynasty has been involved in a sweltering debate over gay rights, civil rights and discrimination. It all started with an interview of Duck Dynasty star, Phil Robertson, that appeared in GQ Magazine. The mega-viral debate has virtually detonated all over the internet this Christmas. It is a surefire controversy that depicts democracy at its best and at its worse.
At its best, democracy allows people to freely express themselves simply because they have been born with the right to free speech. It is not something that should ever be taken for granted – just ask anyone who lives in North Korea. On the other hand, in the process of allowing free speech, democracy also gives free rein to anyone’s right to have and express an opinion, even when it is hurtful and insulting to some people.
This is the bane of America’s existence, so to speak. Racism itself is the single most volatile topic in our society today. So, it should come as no surprise that from time to time someone will express opinions which hurt someone else’s feelings.
In the case of race and racism, one can certainly expect that, from time to time, someone will express an honest opinion and knowingly start a virtual riot. Gay rights create a contentious topic in society, but nowhere as volatile as racism. Of course, gay rights is terribly volatile –and someone probably did not like that last sentence – but racism is still ultra-volatile.
From one who used to be a college professor, teaching the chapter on race in an otherwise ordinary Sociology 101 course for many years allowed the opportunity to gauge public opinion in an informal way. The single most memorably volatile interaction came one day when two students, one an African-American and one a Jewish American, began to debate on the precise historical and cultural meaning of their respective ethnic experiences.
It went wrong quickly. The two began exchanging emotionally charged doses of reality and the fight for the moral high ground soon became desperate. The tension was so palpable that the air could have been cut with a proverbial knife. The climax came when the Jewish woman said, “The holocaust of my people is the worst thing that ever happened to any group of people.” To which the black man responded by insisting, “The holocaust of my people is still going on!”
In dealing with these kinds of volatile issues perhaps there are two important things to remember. First, there is no way that one person can be inside another’s head and know exactly how that person feels. Therefore, for a white person to say to a black person, for example, that he understands what it is like to be black is to risk further insult.
Second, when faced with such an emotional issue and claims to empathy will not work, then the most positive and healing reaction to these kinds of situations is simply for a person to be willing to continue listening openly. It’s all about respect.
As a white college professor, one learns not to say much, but to listen actively and sincerely. The act of listening openly is the most respectful thing one person can do for another. In discussing topics such as racism and gay rights this advice goes double.
Herein lies the danger. There is always going to be someone who takes advantage of the right to free speech, using it to incite others. For the sake of perspective, just imagine Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty entering an interview situation with GQ Magazine. The premise of having GQ Magazine conduct an interview with a mash-up of a mountain man and a bayou swamp monster is already a little suspect. What’s wrong with this picture?
It would seem they set out to build a fire and they brought along plenty of gasoline to help. This ironic juxtaposition of Robertson and GQ was obviously a set-up for a Christmas publicity stunt, and it worked. It was a recipe for a virtual time bomb set to go off during Christmas shopping season. In 2013, Duck Dynasty sold merchandise grossing $400 million, and it is peaking out now with a bang.
The secret of this slur-for-money publicity stunt strategy is to find a topic that is heated and splits people down the middle. There are certain topics that are always guaranteed to do this. For example, right up there with gay rights and civil rights, the abortion issue has always split the nation into a 50/50 fervor, each side ready to do pitched battle. Abortion and gay rights probably tie for second place in the volatile social issues category, but racism is always number one.
Therefore, it is easy to set up a virtual race war in the media, only to turn around and milk it dry for all its worth. In fact, it is a protected right to do so. Somehow humans just know it is not okay to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater. But one’s right to express his opinion about race and ethnicity is like a gun. It is a dangerous weapon in ignorant hands, but each is entitled to having one.
When this interview was first spawned, everyone involved knew that eventually Phil Robertson would be virtually vilified by one side in the debate, and on the way to being canonized for sainthood by the other. Remember, there is gross annual revenue of about $400 million dollars sitting on the table and hanging in the balance, and that kind of money is the one thing most people value the same way.
It must have been predictable. One side will be spitting and cussing – fighting mad. The other side will be running to the nearest Walmart to stock up on Duck Dynasty paraphernalia before it sells out because collector’s items can be worth lots of money.
Indeed, Phil Robertson and GQ double-dipped the volatility card, and fanned the flames of fury by poking at black people and gay people. It must have been ridiculously obvious in retrospect. Would anyone in his right mind stand up in public and say that black people were always happy before they had been legally and socially acknowledged as human beings in this country?
In the same vein, it must have been almost too easy to take a jab at homosexuality by referring to one’s private body parts and quoting Biblical verse all in the same sentence. There is an old saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So, that pretty much explains how and why Phil Robertson set out to make so many enemies this Christmas. It’s good for business.
The best part of democracy is being able to express oneself freely. Sigmund Freud noted that “lack of expression leads to depression.” However, the worst part of democracy occurs when someone finds a volatile issue and sets out to exploit it because it is a protected right to do so. In the ensuing melee people get insulted, people get hurt, and people feast on their self-righteous indignation.
The secret is that democracy hurts, but it is the right way to pursue government. Moreover, even though democracy is a great backbone for a republic, it does not mean that people themselves are always right or great to each other. So, it is not too surprising to see people putting out freedom of speech fires with racist gasoline. Nor is it surprising to see people hurling humiliating epithets at one another based on sexuality, in the name of honesty and Biblical devotion.
That is how the Duck Dynasty debate debacle detonated according to plan this Christmas holiday season. Americans love democracy, but that does not mean everybody always has to like the results. That is why Duck Dynasty depicts democracy at its dirtiest, Bad Santa worst. That is also why Duck Dynasty depicts democracy at its free-to-be-you-and-me, Good Santa best.
Editorial By Alex Durig