On Weighing More Than a Duck

If there was one particular attribute I possessed as a college student, it was a propensity to weigh in too often. I would have much rather been the best writer, the most insightful, or the most well-read, but those weren’t my strengths. I’m a talker. I think quickly and I form conclusions with considerable speed, which inevitably led to sharing those conclusions if no one else wished to speak up. I couldn’t really help it. After a professor asked a discussion question, most of my classmates would sit quietly, even in certain grad school seminars. The silence hanging in the air would electrify my mind into voicing a position.

Sometimes, I wouldn’t even actually support the position I presented. Being a competent devil’s advocate was as exciting as being the voice of insight. When a free exchange of ideas occurs, I’m irresistibly inclined to join in the discussion. I used to become embroiled in facebook discussions, laced with bluster and ignorant fallacy. I’ve learned my lesson there and now most of mpackaged but fierce exchanges take place with strangers on Reddit. Now that I lead a great many discussions with unwilling, captive participants, I’ve learned to better obscure and mute my own personal position of a topic when necessary.

I’ve been reticent to weigh in on the fracas surrounding Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson and his candid comments in an interview with GQ. Over the last week, I’ve watched unproductive arguments unfold between politically-opposed friends and passive-aggressive status updates appear about knowing who to unfriend or unfollow because of the controversy. I enjoy listening to a vibrant debate as much as I used to enjoy classroom discussions as a student,  yet there’s something troubling about this controversy and, by extension, these contemporary conceptions of free speech.

Before I go any further, I’m going to take a page from the book of an earlier incarnation of myself and explicitly state my position on the issue. I simultaneously support both gay equality and Phil Robertson’s right to consider homosexuality immoral. In fact, I support a strong set of protections for freedom of thought, speech, and association. I believe that a secular, democratically-oriented republic should have a permissive and inclusive attitude towards individual freedom and the free exchange of ideas. I believe the same constitutional protections for the free practice of religion are philosophically analogous to the same proposed protections for sexual orientation.

I also believe that Phil Robertson’s inability to delicately articulate his point of view is more indicative of passive bigotry on his part than it is a lack of polish and refinement. That being said, accusations of hate speech should be saved for the egregious offenders, not those who are simply unvarnished or unaware of the effect of their words on others.

The new Pope’s overtures towards relatively progressive political perspectives is a clever masking of the fact that, all other things being equal, the Pope still believes that atheists and gay folks are in desperate need of spiritual rehabilitation. He’s better at covering his iron-fisted morality with a velvet glove than Phil Robertson, but they live on the same planet in the solar system of ideologies.

It’s an unresolved problem for modern Christians to consider that love, but with ulterior motives, isn’t an inherently insincere point of view. Proclaiming to love everyone while demanding rehabilitation is a recipe for isolation, whether it is from others or imposed on others. Conditional, contingent expressions of love aren’t ethically acceptable simply because they’re packaged with a big red heart on the envelope. There’s still an explicit assertion that goes something like this: “I love you because I’m obligated to do so by religious authority. You’re broken and I won’t respect or accept you unless you admit that you’re not only broken, but that I also know what’s better for your life than you do. If you do both of those things and then conduct yourself according to my standards, I’ll consider seeing you as someone worth sincerely loving.

That’s not “loving the sinner but hating the sin.” That’s christofascism with a valentine, desperately trying to not be exposed for what it truly is.

On the other hand, Phil Robertson’s world view and unrecognized white privilege inform his morality in such a profound way that there’s no perceived tension between loving the sinner and hating the sin. From another perspective, expecting the people we love to continually improve themselves isn’t insincere. A parent wants their child to be better, do better, and eventually fulfill all the promise that parent believes they hold. That parent’s love isn’t insincere simply by virtue of it being partially composed of expectations.

It isn’t unreasonable to believe that a meth addict can’t flourish without admitting their dependence and then working to purge its poisonous influence from their life. There’s no ethical inconsistency to demanding that one’s relationship partner be sexually and romantically exclusive to you. A partner’s tendency to be unfaithful isn’t a lifestyle one should be forced to accept if one believes that the only valid relationship to have is one where fidelity and respect are expected. So it goes that if an individual’s moral precepts foundationally predispose them to see a certain set of behaviors as unacceptable, that individual is free to not engage in those acts.

Phil Robertson’s views on homosexual inequality and harmonious, prelapsarian racial coexistence emerge from a cultural specificity that shouldn’t be excluded from any evaluation of his personal moral principles. A&E knows exactly who Phil Robertson is and to claim that his personal intolerance is somehow suddenly unacceptable is flatly disingenuous, at best. This is the same network that willingly edited, approved, and aired the following segment earlier this year.

I’m not going to make any inferences beyond what the obvious dry humor attempts to exhibit, other than to say that A&E knows exactly who they’re dealing with. They have from day one, as well. Having grown up around socially conservative backwoods-folks, there’s nothing surprising about Robertson’s views. In fact, I’m surprised they haven’t been more of an issue or have been more crudely presented. There’s something fishy about this whole fiasco. It’s likely as not that this whole thing is a clever method for A&E and the Robertsons to part ways and boost the value of the syndication rights to the show.

That being said, his suspension isn’t a free speech issue in any constitutional sense. There’s very clearly no state or government pressure to censor Robertson’s speech. In fact, his state’s own governor, Bobby Jindal, defended Robertson’s right to speak his mind. Jindal’s defense was a faulty resemblance argument, but the underlying principle of tolerating uncomfortable content isn’t unreasonable. A&E isn’t even prohibiting Robertson from speaking his mind as often as he likes, to whoever will listen. They’re simply not allowing him to use their show, which is a private business entity, as a platform upon which to air his beliefs.

Philip Nel wrote a blog explaining how academics should expect more protections for unpopular speech than Phil Robertson, due to the unique nature of their occupation. The argument could explain itself to a greater degree, but it’s a blog post and it does a suitable job of explaining the difference in public pressures and production expectations between a reality TV show star and a college professor in a politically hostile state. It’s the same protection of unpopular academic speech that guides part of my teaching.I have ongoing arguments with colleagues about allowing students to make certain arguments on sensitive issues. I know several colleagues who have chosen to disallow essays on certain topics like abortion or gay marriage. That’s their pedagogical choice and they’re free to choose what they wish, but I allow students to write essays from their own cultural specificity. I receive essays attacking the practice of abortion, promoting gay marriage, comparing taxation to enslavement, and asserting that Obama is a villain.I allow these topics, not because I find common ground with their premise, but due to the fact that my primary goal is to help a student articulate their own political views to a greater degree. More often than not, this directly involves an uncomfortable recognition that one’s personal beliefs are hard to defend, inherently bigoted, misinformed, or are based on logical fallacies.That’s not the stated purpose, though. It does happen and I’m happy to guide a student through the process of the scales falling off their eyes.

I believe that the solar system of ideologies needs socially conservative and socially progressive voices. I believe these voices need to learn to evaluate and use evidence effectively. I believe that a rich field of perspectives creates a more thriving, representative democracy. I not only want a socially conservative student to explore their views against gay marriage in an essay, I also want them to engage with another student’s views in favor of abandoning the institution of marriage altogether.

I want their writing to become more articulate and thoughtful and I want them to see that there is validity in other perspectives across a wide spectrum of ethical positions. In fact, I want them to forget that ethical positions exist on a spectrum at all. They’re in constant, multidimensional movement in relation to all other perspectives, just as celestial bodies are both constantly in motion and constantly affected by their proximity to other celestial bodies.

So, while I think that Phil Robertson’s views are unsurprisingly conservative, I don’t think that he shouldn’t be allowed to express them. I do think that anyone with similar views should look at Robertson’s statements as an example of inarticulate expression and I also believe that Robertson’s critics shouldn’t forget  that his inability to acceptably articulate his point of view is rooted in his cultural specificity.

When we discuss historical revision and idealizing the past, I want to point to Robertson’s views on Louisiana race relations as an example of how different people might not even possess the same foundational, seemingly elementary view of history. The awareness of such a perspective ideally makes us all more acutely aware of the limitations of our own perspectives.Free speech is best wielded skillfully. Those who wield it like a crude club or a misused semiautomatic assault rifle risk undoing the protections that we’re fortunate to have. Yet, the answer is not to enforce inoffensiveness through a panopticon, where everyone is afraid to truly speak their mind. We want weighty, substantive arguments that can be comprehended by a wide swath of the populace.
The way to acquire that is not by overreacting to folks like Phil Robertson. We acquire those sought-after perspectives by helping others refine their ability to articulate their own point of view, so that civil discourse is elevated enough to rise above the influence of political demagogues,  reality television personalities, and sensationalist magazine writers.
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