I suppose it is time for the inevitable ruminations related to Phil Robertson’s infamous interview with GQ magazine.
But first, a bit of full disclosure: I am and remain a huge fan of Duck Dynasty, however long or short the show may last. I am also a self-identified nondenominational Christian with my own personal relationship with God through Christ, one that is probably out of step with many others’, perhaps including Robertson’s. In the interest of fairness and as much objectivity as is possible, I feel it relevant to point this all out for background as I offer my own perspective on these developments.
I decided to read the article in its entirety to ensure I received a full understanding of what Robertson actually said that has apparently conveyed such offense to so many. Context is everything, of course. Perhaps this is due to some inherent bias on my part but I could not find much that warranted such a seemingly overblown reaction to a single man’s personal view of sin. (To be fair, some of the Robertson’s supporters and fans have also proven themselves to be quite unreasonable in their angry reactions to his suspension).
Some pundits have suggested Robertson was wrong for going out of his way to harshly judge a single group, a point that belies the facts of what the interview actually captures. Robertson himself never stated that he judged anyone more or less worthy of heaven than he or others. In point of fact, he explicitly stated “we never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.” It is certainly true that he identified homosexual behavior as sinful; he did so while identifying other sins that the Bible relates as well, such as adultery, promiscuity, greed, insobriety, and lying. What the mainstream media has largely failed to report is that he also is very candid with the fact that he is a sinner himself, a man whose past is chock full of violence and substance abuse (at the least).
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) further stated that “[Robertson] clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans – and Americans – who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples.” This is a straw man accusation by the organization, however. Nowhere in the interview in question does Robertson even speak on the issue of marriage beyond his own. Like myself, it is possible to find certain behaviors immoral and reject them on a personal level while politically supporting the belief that the government has no legitimate business regulating them legislatively. (I am not declaratively speaking for Robertson’s perspective on this point; nonetheless, the fact remains that he never lobbied for banning same-sex marriage in this interview).
Some have decried Robertson’s alleged direct comparison of homosexuality to bestiality, another claim that is not so clear within the context of the statements given the broader discussion and identifications of sin and its generally incremental creep into modern society. One observer noted that “he also thinks homosexuality is a sin comparable to bestiality” but this is a misleadingly inaccurate statement. If the Bible is to be believed, as Robertson certainly does, then it is God who thinks homosexuality is a sin comparable to bestiality, along with some hundreds (at least) of other sins identified throughout the Book.1 In this context, Robertson simply reiterated biblical text and instruction as representative of God’s Word. To suggest that one should never compare the two, or never compare homosexuality with other sinful behaviors such as adultery or lying, is actually to suggest that one should never compare or otherwise discuss sin(s) at all for fear of giving offense to someone that sins (which is to say, anyone and everyone). If this is indeed offensive, as GLAAD’s and others’ statements suggest, then that offense runs far deeper than simply with Phil Robertson. That is taking offense at the Word of God, not the word of Robertson, and implies that mortal man knows better than God on such matters – hardly the camp I wish to be in but a nonetheless personal choice that everyone must make for themselves.
As I have mentioned before, I obviously cannot speak empirically for Robertson’s intent. That said, however, I believe his message in this interview was not hatred toward homosexuals but rather a brief discussion of sin in its many forms, including those forms that his own has taken, and how they can be overcome through Jesus Christ. Whether one accepts or rejects Jesus and/or God is again one’s own decision to make but simply suggesting that Robertson is a homophobe by contextually cherry-picking his broader discussion of sin is a considerable mischaracterization of the man’s words and a significant digression from his overarching point of better living through Christ.
In the end, this is not a legal free speech issue at its heart. The First Amendment protects individuals’ rights to exercise free expression from federal government infringement (and is subsequently incorporated to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment), not private institutions, individuals, or organizations. An employer, in this case the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) Network, has every right to suspend and/or terminate Robertson for virtually anything he says or does and this point is not in dispute. Whether or not doing so makes economic sense is another matter, however. Surely it is reasonable to presume that the folks most likely to take offense to Robertson’s comments do not make up an appreciable portion of the show’s viewership, a logical conclusion that makes A&E’s decision to suspend Robertson all that more puzzling from a market standpoint. Is it logical to seek to censor so-called reality television, particularly when the presumed consumer demographic is likely to lack sufficient empathy with those demanding the network cut ties with Robertson and/or the show itself?
In any event, on a philosophical level I would like to know when we as a society have had enough of what I perceive to be political correctness run amok. This political correctness is inherently devastating to the free exchange of ideas – good or bad – and honest, open debate. If we are to genuinely embrace free expression, and that freedom is to mean anything substantively, how can we ever really do so without offending anyone at any time in some context or another? Is freedom consistent with an obligation to avoid giving offense? It seems to me the very essence of free expression, though not its moral purpose, is dramatically slanted toward disagreement (at least initially). Otherwise, what would be the point?
There is no denying that Robertson’s anecdotes and analogies are something less than highbrow; I get that, but is this sufficient cause to straw man his words and scapegoat him as a proxy for deeper conflictions and resentments with much higher authorities (i.e., God Himself, society-at-large, etc.)? As Time’s Brandon Ambrosino suggests, the forcefully negative reaction to Robertson’s cherry-picked quotes have acerbically revealed far more insight about the offended in this case than the offender.
The bottom line is that freethinking people are entitled to have opinions and to voice them, including all sides of a given issue. If individualism and free will are to mean anything at all, this virtually guarantees that offense will be given from time to time when people voice their opinions on topics of any relevance. We are certainly not androids, all of us preprogrammed with universally identical thoughts and perspectives. Behavioral diversity means disagreement and sometimes rejection on various grounds and more importantly means that no one is justly entitled to special treatment when hurt feelings are involved. So long as action to affect the rights and freedom of others is not a factor, a point that Robertson never once mentioned, lobbied for, or otherwise supported in the interview in question, the opinions of others neither pick one’s pocket nor breaks his leg. The question I would suggest everyone at GLAAD and throughout the gay community should ask is (along with anyone else this may apply to), ‘if I reject someone else’s definition of sin then why should I care one iota about that person’s further discussion of sin beyond that point? Sticks and stones and all that… unless of course, there exists a bigger axe to grind.
1 Interpretational differences between Old and New Testament sins, rules, and commandments (e.g., the Ten Commandments versus Jesus’ Commandments) and God’s covenant with Moses’ people and God’s covenant with mankind through Jesus are all worthy of debate and exchange in the interest of free will and gnostic pursuit but are wholly irrelevant to the issue at hand. Robertson spoke as an individual Christian pursuant to his inherently unique interpretation, which clearly includes the various sins he enumerated.