“Duck Dynasty” Scandal Reveals More About Us Than About Phil Robertson
With his comments comparing homosexuality to bestiality in an interview with GQ, Phil Robertson, the star of A&E‘s popular reality TV series Duck Dynasty, has shown himself to be a vile bigot. Contrary to the arguments of his defenders on the Right, widespread condemnation of the Louisiana native is not about political correctness; rather, it is about showing basic respect for one’s fellow human beings. There is no plausible moral basis on which to defend Robertson’s hatred. His comments crossed the line between discretely disapproving of homosexuality, reprehensible but nonetheless defensible, into expressing downright contempt for gay people, some of whom watched Duck Dynasty and helped make him rich and famous. You can be sure that if liberals compared conservatives to practitioners of bestiality, there is no way the National Review and other right-wing media sources would rush to our defense. Just look at their reaction to Martin Bashir’s off-color remarks about Sarah Palin.
However, setting right and wrong aside, the Duck Dynasty scandal reveals some uncomfortable realities about how we experience entertainment and respond to controversy. Reality television allows us to peer into worlds foreign to us in a way that is intimate and enlightening. The creators of Duck Dynasty came up with the lucrative concept of feeding our interest in observing the lives of others with a kind of cultural voyeurism. Fascination with the show’s colorful cast of southern characters is not purely a matter of discovery. There is also an undertone of condescension that comes along with watching a community of lovable hillbillies speak in a vernacular and indulge in activities foreign to many of us. The controversy surrounding Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty has shown that we have limited tolerance for a worldview that clashes with our own. As long as everything remains innocuous, we laugh at the charming idiots and their exotic lives. However, if one of them slips and reveals a more objectionable aspect of his worldview, our fascination morphs into to outrage. In the case of Phil Robertson, we even go so far as to demand the resignation of a man who, while despicable, is expressing an opinion held by many people in this country. This is not a violation of Phil Robertson’s First Amendment rights because A&E is a private entity with the freedom to hire or fire whomever its owners see fit. But the notion that, as liberals, we should suppress views we condemn is questionable. Isn’t exposing these views ultimately a more effective strategy than banishing them into the darkness?
Plus, how does our reaction reflect on us? While it’s too extreme to say that we are “using” the stars of Duck Dynasty (after all, they’re paid millions of dollars), there is an element of exploitation. Is it fair of us to watch a show depicting a certain culture and then to complain when we witness a part of that culture we don’t like? Stigmatizing homophobia and, ultimately, banishing it from acceptable discourse is a worthy goal, but is not one that we can further by firing a reality TV star. That just looks petty and, if anything, will encourage other homophobes to dig in their heels and justify their hate based on a warped sense of religious persecution. If we really want to show our disapproval of Phil Robertson and his views, there’s a simple solution: stop watching Duck Dynasty. It is more than likely that others on the show share Robertson’s bigotry, even if they have the foresight to keep their mouths shut. After all, the show does not hide the fact that its stars adhere to fundamentalist religious doctrines that go hand-in-hand with homophobia. Whether we like it or not, the biblical quote on which Phil Robertson based his despicable remarks is one commonly cited by social conservatives. We don’t have to like it, but we can’t plausibly claim to be shocked by it. Either we want an authentic portrayal of the culture Duck Dynasty portrays or a whitewashed, sanitized version of that culture. We can’t have it both ways.