Phil Robertson, one of the stars of A&E network’s hit show “Duck Dynasty,” was sent on an indefinite hiatus from the show by station executives in a decision which is disappointing in its hypocrisy. On the show, Mr. Roberson is portrayed as he is. He is a 67-year old man, raised in a conservative Christian part of back-woods Louisiana. He is unabashedly chauvinistic and anachronistic in his opinions, but appreciated nonetheless for his fierce devotion to his family and his genuinely caring nature. He is a product of his environment and his upbringing, and audiences find him entertaining for the truth he lives on the screen. For the television network to act surprised that he holds and is willing to express the views that he did is disingenuous at best. It is self-serving, and does not a single thing toward advancing the cause of gays in the United States or anywhere else.
A lot of people on both sides of the issue want to raise the issue of free speech. There is really no actual question of free speech at all. Mr. Robertson was afforded the opportunity to say whatever he wanted, and he took advantage of it. By the same token, A&E was fully within its rights to decide to suspend the man. There is a constitutional right to free speech, but not to a continued employment once that freedom is exercised. Given that the network sought the family out for the “Duck Dynasty” program based on the personalities and viewpoints of the family and the resonance they had with a large portion of the population, however, it is disappointing that the decision was made to punish rather than to discuss the real issues involved.
The concept of a “reality” show is to provide a voyeuristic window into the lives of people who have something the audience can identify with in order to draw them into watching. In the case of many shows, it is an artificially created situation where there are contestants vying for a prize and the viewer drawn into a vicarious competition for that prize. In the case of “Duck Dynasty” and the Robertson clan, it was not artificially created. Multi-millionaire bayou “rednecks” are a stretch to relate to in anybody’s book, yet the close family ties and carefree personalities brought a vicarious experience that A&E has ridden all the way to the bank. They cannot, without being guilty of the basest hypocrisy, take advantage of Mr. Robertson’s personality and then punish him for it when it no longer is convenient to support him.
The “Duck Dynasty” patriarch did not do anything more than give his opinion when asked. He did not incite people to hatred or violence. He did not lie for the sake of political correctness. There was not an executive at the network, nor a person who has ever watched the show who did not already have a pretty good idea of where he stood on the issue he was asked about. Telling him that his personality is exactly what they want for ratings, then acting shocked and horrified to find out that he holds the views that he does, is foolish.
Engaging in censorship of his opinion is no more right that it was twenty years ago to censor gay and lesbian characters out of the television landscape altogether. It is just a different cast of characters in the position of power. If it is alright to censor opposing views rather than discussing them in an atmosphere of respect and equanimity, then the supposed advancements in civil and human rights are no more than a shift of power base. Those sort of shifts are historically always temporary.
It is entirely appropriate that there has been public outcry about the statements made. They represent a viewpoint that sprang from the culture that made the struggle for gay civil rights necessary in this country. The fact that a large number of people in the United States hold the same view is certainly something that bears talking about, loudly and often. Expressing the viewpoints that he did in a national publication certainly leaves him open to public criticism and scorn from the opposition. It could also be the spark that begins discussion nationwide that can only bring better understanding. Those are the things that cause real change. Attitudes and belief systems can be changed with education and understanding almost always, but nearly never with legislation.
A&E is most certainly within its rights to do what it has done. It missed the boat, however, on an opportunity to host and facilitate a discussion that could have done much more good for the cause it purports to support. From the perspective of someone who has spent the better part of the past 25 years fighting to advance the cause of gay rights, that conversation would have been far more supportive than the course of action taken. While intended to show support, censorship cannot be the means by which equality is achieved. Although A&E made a disappointing decision with respect to the “Duck Dynasty” star, there still exists the possibility for the network to turn the situation from censorship into a discussion that might actually contribute something meaningful to the national debate.
By Jim Malone