To duck or not to duck challenging viewpoints

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It seems like the whole rest of the world is weighing in on the whole Phil Robertson/A&E controversy. I had intended to just duck it (arrrrgh) therefore. But it just keeps coming up, and I just. have. to. say. something.

A few things, in fact.

I’m posting it here because of the clear implications (on several levels) related to communication. But inevitably that will get into a lot of other issues that I care about, and that’s the reason I really hesitate to say anything.

It’s the same reason that Phil Robertson may have, at one time, thought better than to open his mouth and express an opinion. It’s likely the reason he has, for some time, chosen to not let such considerations stop him from expressing an opinion on any number of things.

The reason: it doesn’t matter what your opinion is, if you express it, someone isn’t going to like it. And there is a good chance it could change relationships, because people are very good at disagreeing.

And that’s the reason, ultimately, I have to say something.

What it’s not about

  1. Whatever else this controversy is about, it’s not about the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It may or may not be about free speech, but I don’t think so. It certainly has nothing to do with the constitution.

The First Amendment is a check on the government, not on someone’s employer. If a government entity tried to punish Phil Robertson or anyone else for speaking up about much of anything, we would have a First Amendment issue. Unless your employer is the government, the First Amendment won’t (and shouldn’t) keep you from getting disciplined for things you say.

Let’s be straight about this: your job doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to your employer. The government puts all kinds of limitations on what employers can do as far as employing or dismissing someone, and it is beyond the scope of this post how wise such limitations are. Nevertheless, there are lots of reasons that the job is the employer’s to give or take as the employer chooses.

I can’t limit the employer’s ability to fire someone over the employee’s speech without, in the process, infringing on the employer’s right to free speech. The legal protection in the constitution is against government abuse, nothing more.

Whether it is wise for an employer to fire an employee who states his mind is another topic, which we’ll take up in a moment.

  1. The issue is also not really about Christianity or the Bible.

This may come as a surprise to some people: Christians who equally respect the Bible may disagree about what it says.

Again, it goes beyond the scope of this article to dig into the cases on each side of this from a biblical perspective. If you really want to do so, just Google “Bible arguments for gay marriage.” I’m not saying that to take a position; I’m pointing out that the issue isn’t the simple “believer vs. nonbeliever” one that some Christians and some nonbelievers set it up to be.

In other words, I can understand also_duck

I take it back. It’s about Christianity and the Bible to this degree: I don’t believe the Bible was written for me to use it to decide what you should do. I believe it was written for me to decide what I should do. I happen not to be homosexual, so all the time I spend deciding whether it’s a sin for someone else is time I’m distracting myself from dealing with the issues I do have.

By the way, it seems to me >Phil Robertson has decided what he believes about that issue and what his response should be: to love and accept everyone, even when he thinks they’re doing something wrong.

Which leads me to:

  1. It’s not about whether you agree with Phil Robertson or not, or what kind of person he is.

I’ve been impressed with some of the people who might be on the “other side” of the gay issue who are supporting Phil Robertson in his right to express his opinion.

I’ve already said, by the way, that A&E is fully within it’s rights to fire Phil Robertson for whatever reason it chooses. Just as Robertson will bear the consequences of speaking his mind, A&E will bear the consequences of firing him (of course, there would be other consequences if they kept him on). That’s for A&E to decide.

Still, it’s interesting to see people like lesbian libertarian Camille Paglia supporting Robertson. You can disagree about issues while recognizing the value of fostering the discussion and the expression of divergent views.

What I think it’s about

Whether you agree with Phil Robertson or not, the man is not stupid.

Don’t you think he has known for quite some time that at some point some opinion of his would run afoul of the thought police? Don’t you think it has crossed his mind how much it could potentially cost him in monetary terms? This wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Neither was it a deliberate attempt to stir controversy.

I think he probably decided long ago that if he had to reign in his beliefs and hold his tongue in order to maintain an income, or a relationship with a media company, it just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth betraying who he is.

I don’t care if “who he is” is right. I disagree with him on many things. I’m just disturbed that our culture has reached a point where we cannot abide someone expressing an opinion that isn’t politically correct. I think it’s shameful that any political group would seek to squelch and punish those who disagree with them by getting the “transgressor” fired. I think the same, by the way, when the political arrow happens to point the other way.

I almost feel sorry for A&E–it’s classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Keep him on? GLAAD would have a fit, and would organize a boycott. Fire him? Nearly a million people have already signed onto a Facebook page pledging to boycott A&E until they restore him.

Distractions

Here’s what really disturbs me: have you paid attention to the headlines about things that really matter?

If you haven’t noticed, folks, there are much more important issues going on. For instance, Washington has basically abandoned a Christian missionary imprisoned in Iraq for the crime of speaking about his beliefs, and while I see some efforts among Christians to remedy that situation, I’ve seen nothing like the outcry over the firing of a millionaire redneck who, let’s face it, is not being persecuted in any shape or form the way Syrian Christians are every single day.

On the other side I see liberals foaming at the mouth because Phil Robertson expressed a opinion (and I have to say, he made it clear that he also doesn’t believe it’s his right to judge anyone else), while continuing to support an administration that has broken its promise to support same-sex marriage, continues to use drones to kill hundreds and thousands of non-combatants, and has a record of abusing personal liberties rivaling that of any previous administrations.

Which brings me to my bottom line.

This is just one of a series of incidents that, together, have the effect of squashing expression and dialogue.

If I risk being fired, being defriended, being ostracized by every opinion that might contradict yours, I’m not exactly encouraged to express it. And we’re all worse off as a result.

Facebook and other social media tend to learn about us from our posts, and then mainly show us the information we’re “interested” in. We get reinforced in our beliefs, including the belief that those who disagree are stupid or evil. Consequently, we never get challenged in our ideas, and thus we stagnate.

The First Amendment only protects us from the government. But the founders sought to protect our speech from the government because they knew ideas flourish when people test ideas against each other.

You must conform!

One of my best friends disagrees with many of my ideas and viewpoints. We have remained friends for over 20 years despite that, because I value her intellect and points of view even when I disagree. I have learned from her arguments, and she says she has learned from mine. Neither of us will never completely change the other’s mind, but both of us benefit from the expression of opposing ideas.

From what I’ve seen of the interview in GQ that started all this, Robertson expressed a point of view that many disagree with. He did it clearly, without dissembling, and though he expressed a position many people hate, he was not hateful in the way he did it. Immediately the outcry for his dismissal began. We can no longer differentiate disagreement from hate and intolerance.

I suspect A&E will regret ever having contracted with someone who does not temper his expression of his beliefs because it may ruffle feathers. Strong convictions, especially those that go against currently fashionable notions, will always cause controversy. It was inevitable they would eventually have to take a stand of some sort based on something one of these folks said, which meant that eventually they would have to deal with a chunk of audience leaving.

In the end, I don’t feel sorry for Phil Robertson, and I don’t feel sorry for A&E. I feel sorry for us. I’m not defending Phil Robertson (though neither am I condemning him); I’m decrying our inability to tolerate disagreement, or to even contemplate that someone else might have a bit of truth worth considering.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.