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John Perilli: Of Ducks, Debates and Dehumanization

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


There's nothing like a loose-lipped culture warrior to start a good argument.

2013 has certainly seen more than its share of outsized personalities get pilloried for airing their views on social issues, ranging from celebrities like the Food Network's Paula Deen, who took a roasting for her use of racial slurs, to powerful public figures like New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was shouted down at Brown University as part of a protest against his controversial "Stop and Frisk" policy. They have their critics, and they have their defenders. The angry fires burn for a few weeks, then eventually settle down. It's almost a routine by now.

But the latest case––the unfortunate comments of "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson––is perhaps the craziest case of the year. In one interview, Robertson managed to malign both homosexuals and blacks, decrying homosexuality as "sinful" and implying that Black Americans were better off during the Jim Crow era than they are now. The backlash came, as it should have, and Robertson was suspended from his show by A&E.

However, amid the chorus of criticism, a startling response has come to the fore: conservatives who are defending Robertson by saying that liberals are trying to silence him. They argue that condemning Robertson is something like a totalitarian effort to stifle free speech and free debate. It was these responses, more than anything, that made me want to set the record straight:

I'm as much for free speech and free inquiry as anyone, but censorship is a serious accusation. And in this case, it is badly misplaced.

Pleading the First

Let's make this clear: if Paula Deen, Ray Kelly, Phil Robertson and their ilk wanted to stand in a public place with a megaphone and shout their views to the rooftops, no one could stop them.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees strong protections to free speech, stronger than almost anywhere in the developed world. No liberals or progressives I know are out to personally censor people for speaking their views. I personally find Deen, Kelly and Robertson's opinions on race and homosexuality deeply disagreeable, but their right is their right.

However, as the saying goes, free speech never happens in a vacuum. Before the Food Network discontinued her show, Paula Deen was averaging 835,000 viewers per episode, down from a high of 1.1 million in 2012. Ray Kelly has over 34,000 uniformed officers under his supervision, making him one of the most powerful law enforcement officials in the United States. The season premiere of Phil Robertson's show Duck Dynasty this past October attracted 12 million viewers.

Clearly, none of them reached the wide audience they now command without a bit of an institutional leg-boost.

So, if these organizations are unhappy with what the people on their platforms are saying, they are well within their rights to shut these people down.

The Food Network canceled Paula Deen's show because they feared the bad publicity from keeping her. If the City of New York wanted to give Ray Kelly the axe, they certainly could. At the infamous Brown lecture, the backlash against his policies proved too high a price for the University, and they called off his talk (remember: It was the University that ultimately canceled the lecture, not the protesters).

In case you think I'm cherrypicking conservatives, consider the insolent remarks made recently by MSNBC host Martin Bashir. The station did not want to deal with the bad publicity, so they sent Bashir packing. And that was that.

This was the choice A&E faced after the Phil Robertson debacle. They could keep him and take their lumps, or they could leave him and cut their losses. It remains unclear what they will eventually decide, but no matter the outcome, there is nothing remotely anti-free speech about suspending Robertson, nor about taking him out of the show altogether.

The Anti-Censorship Crusaders

In the midst of the controversy, though, a strident faction of conservatives has come to Robertson's defense. They claim that all this backlash is an anti-intellectual attempt to stifle free and open debate.

Now, no one would be happier than myself if conservatives took up arms more often against the forces of anti-intellectualism. It's an insidious problem in the United States, one which leaves us trusting baseless suspicions over mountains of data and evidence. But in Robertson's case, this is far from the issue.

Unfortunately, the debate over gay rights is still an active one. It's a battle that is being fought right now, state by state, as legislatures consider extending full civil rights to America's LGBTQ citizens.

But there is an important difference between "censorship" and "being angry that your way of life is being insulted." Censorship is deliberate, systematic, and carried out by the Government or some other large, powerful organization. The revolt against Robertson is just a wide group of people standing up for themselves.

Did we really expect LGBTQ America to have a nice, civil discussion about how they are all supposedly hell-bound sinners?

Interestingly, many conservative defenses of Robertson stop here. They only address the remarks he made about homosexuality, without mentioning at all his comments about blacks. About how "no one was singing the blues" in the days before civil rights. It's because these comments, no matter how intellectual or pro-free speech you consider yourself, are indefensible. That debate, thankfully, is over.

Our constitution, besides detailing our rights, pulls another interesting trick: It effectively takes these rights off the table for discussion. I doubt you would ever hear a public debate about whether or not we have free speech. We all just agree that we do.

The same goes for civil rights. Around 150 years ago, we spilled much ink and blood over whether or not African Americans could enjoy basic rights, and in the end, these rights were enshrined in the Constitution as the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Apparently, America did not get the message, so to hammer the point home a hundred years later, we passed a series of landmark civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act.

We are not debating anymore whether African Americans have rights or not.

I'm glad to have an honest, civil discussion about many issues, but this is one topic I refuse to broach. Does that make me anti-intellectual? Not at all.

Conservatives of a certain persuasion are right to be wary of censorship and anti-intellectualism. But they've got this one all wrong. If there are people in this country who feel their rights are being trodden on, let them be as loud in opposition as they can be.

John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats. The opinions presented in this article do not necessarily represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member.


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