That would seem to be the lesson from the latest reality show meltdown — the suspension of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson.
Robertson is the bearded patriarch of a Louisiana family with a business manufacturing duck calls. “Duck Dynasty,” the popular reality show that depicts the family’s life, is enjoyed by fans because of the picture it presents of conservative, rural, moral, down-home family life. It helps that family members are colorful characters with beards more dramatic than those of the Boston Red Sox.
Robertson got in trouble for comments he made in an interview with GQ magazine about homosexuals. He expressed a conventional, conservative moral view of the sinfulness of homosexuality, likening it to adultery, bestiality and other offensive acts.
None of what has followed has been surprising. Even Robertson’s views are not surprising. A sizable swath of America shares his views, as we have seen in those states that have passed anti-gay legislation. Rick Santorum, previously a presidential candidate, has said much the same thing as Robertson did. Robertson is making a lot of money playing the role of the lovable redneck; it would perhaps be more surprising if his views about gays were different.
It is not surprising also that Robertson’s comments provoked objections from gay people and their friends. Santorum’s views also provoked objections. Even if his views are commonplace in certain quarters, Robertson and A&E could expect that as soon as he aired them in public, he would get a negative response.
Indeed, pernicious biases persist unchallenged when people wink at them, dismiss them, shrug them off as harmless. But they are not harmless. In the mid-20th century, Vermont hotels were still advising the public that Jews were not welcome. The reality of the Holocaust shamed them into dropping that bias. Snickering bias against blacks, women, gays has continued as long as the snickering has gone unchallenged.
The “Duck” family and A&E made a sort of bargain with the public when they presented the Robertsons as a publicly observed phenomenon. They were asking the public to join in the fun of watching this family of rural rubes who were cleverer and more interesting than sneering urbanites and liberals might have thought. But if the picture is revealed to include a religious view that denigrates others, then the public is inevitably going to react. Fearful of identifying itself with a view that judges others as sinful, A&E suspended the big daddy of the family.
Regarding homosexuality even Pope Francis has said, “Who am I to judge?” The judgmental attitude is becoming obsolete. It so happens that as the “Duck” fiasco was unfolding, the New Mexico Supreme Court was ruling that banning gay marriage in New Mexico was unconstitutional. That made New Mexico the 17th state to allow gay marriage, along with the District of Columbia.
The usual lineup of conservative controversialists has defended Phil Robertson’s right to express his views and practice his religion freely. In fact, nothing is preventing him from freely doing so. He is not free, it seems, to force a network to identify with ideas it believes will offend some of its viewers.
Big money is involved, and so the parties involved will probably find a way to parley an apology and a new slice of reality into even more money. People who believe that Papa Robertson has been sinned against can feast on their outrage. Those who continue to object when ordinary, run-of-the-mill anti-gay bias rears its head can take satisfaction that the culture is becoming less tolerant of the sort of denigrating comments that for so long they have had to endure in silence.
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