Monday, December 23, 2013

Duck Homophobia (What we learn from) Part II

I will confess that I have watched Duck Dynasty. I can't claim that I did not find the show amusing and I pay enough attention to it, it turns out, that this new story caught my eye: Duck Dynasty's Phil-Robertson Suspended for Anti-gay Comments. In reading over the story, it struck me that this incident allows us to think about how we can and/or should respond to homophobia and how we can/should think about free speech. I stared to do that with my last blog. I'll continue with this one. In particular, I am interested in what we might learn from what I am calling "Duck homophobia." In my last blog I argued that we learnt something valuable: that homophobes generally don't want to be counted as homophobes. Instead, they want to be seen as defenders of free speech. I speculated that that was because they realized that the best before date on prejudice was coming due. Sure, there will always be bigots, but the day and age of easy prejudice with regard to GLBT is drawing to a close ... more rapidly in Canada than the US but even in the US -- judging from the defenses of duck homophobia -- those people who harbour prejudices understand that they can no longer just cast aspersions and have these accepted. They need to find some principle (free speech, in this case) to hide behind. Otherwise, I think they understand, they cannot carry the day and end up looking like a bunch of old rednecks.

A second thing we learn is that some people don't understand what free speech is all about, why we have it, and what it means. According to the news article cited above, some people are saying that Robertson's freedom of speech is threatened because A & E - -the Network that owns the rights to his TV show -- suspended him from the show. Is this an infringement of free speech? Perhaps ... but that is not a decision we can make without looking at the issue and we need to look at this issue. Robertson (the individual in question) likes to portray himself as a "redneck" and in his personal taste he might be. I don't actually know precisely what he means but if being a redneck signifies a fondness for hunting and wearing pseudo army gear, he qualifies. But, let us be honest. He is not. He is, in fact, a wealthy individual, one of the stars of a hit TV show whose family owns a company with multinational sales. In other words, this is not a case of a big bad network picking on a "little guy." This is a case where a rich and powerful individual used a platform afforded him by his celebrity to make prejudiced comments that were intended to marginalize a group of people who already suffer from prejudice (including violence). If he did not intend to marginalized LGBT ... why did he make those comments?

This is one of the things that we can learn that does not seem to be understood. Commentary on this issue -- particularly from American conservatives -- seems to have confused a character in a television show (a just plain rural hick with his homespun wisdom, a sort of Jed Clampett in army gear) with reality. The reality is that no one -- certainly not A & E -- is trying to stop Jed Clampett from stating his case to whomever wants to hear it. Whether or not A & E is required to provide a forum to rich celebrities who act like Jed Clampett because they make a lot of money from it and then use their celebrity to condemn marginalized groups ... well surely that is another question altogether, is it not? Disagree with me? Robertson himself has not been as blunt as I have been (the benefit of a blog) but he actually said almost as much. He has, for instance, pointed out that he is not a backwoods hick but a university educated and learned man

But, there is something else we should consider as well. The point I am making is that an easy condemnation of A & E is not so easy when we start to investigate the situation. The other thing we need to ask is whether or not Robertson's right to free speech has actually been infringed? I suspect Robertson can saying anything he wants and there would be host of reporters there to cover what he had to say. In other words, I don't think his ability to express his views and reach a very large audience has been in anyway infringed. To argue that it has, for instance, (and this is a point I have made before) one would need to argue that censorship was effective. The test of free speech is not, and never has been, the right to say anything, anywhere, any place, anytime. It is whether or not infringements on the right to say what one wants have been effective. Has A & E prevented Robertson from "getting his message out." The answer is: not at all and when that is the case, how can one argue that there is a violation of free speech? I suspect, in fact, that A & E's suspension of Robertson has nothing to do with trying to limit his right to say what he wants to say. I suspect that other considerations were at stake (and, perhaps, more on this in a future blog).

Thus, what we learn by looking at this issue is that there is some confusion and this confusion is important. What we have is rich individuals claiming that their right to free speech has been violated (or, others making that claim on their behalf) when, in fact, it has not. What has been infringed is their right to say whatever they want, whenever they want. And, that is something different from free speech. Indeed, what I find confusing is how people can confuse the two? What makes rich people think that a fundamental right has been infringed just because they cannot do whatever they want whenever they want.  The rest of us -- the 99% who enjoy no such privileges of wealth or access to media (GQ has never asked me for an interview) -- might pause to wonder about this because we live with a different reality.
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