As the dust settles over A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson’s interview in GQ, I’d like to offer a challenge to all who defended his right to wax nostalgic about how happy black people were before the civil rights era (also stating that Shintoism is basically Nazism and homosexuality is basically bestiality). To all those who rushed to Robertson’s defense—invoking the First Amendment of the Constitution, specifically free speech in an effort to immunize him against any repercussions—I’d like to dare you folks to defend controversial speech that doesn’t fit your worldview.
If you really believe in free speech, if you really think it’s in danger of being abridged, if you really believe it’s an absolute right of living in a free country—then stand up for liberals who say dumb things too. Rally for Alec Baldwin. How about the governor of Louisiana spend an afternoon tweeting support for Martin Bashir’s alleged right to a basic cable show? Get some Change.org petitions going. Get these people back on TV!
In 2010, Sarah Palin called for President Obama’s then chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to be fired because he privately used the word “retarded.” Palin was so offended by the word “retard” she equated it to the “N-word” (then later passionately defended the use of the “N-word” when Dr. Laura was the one slinging it across the airwaves). Palin cited her child with Down Syndrome as the reason Rahm should lose his job for his potty mouth. She wrote on Facebook: “I would ask the president to show decency in this process by eliminating one member of that inner circle, Mr. Rahm Emanuel, and not allow Rahm’s continued indecent tactics to cloud efforts.”
I have no idea what “indecent tactics to cloud efforts” means but I defend her right to use her random thesaurus generator app to create fake controversies against her political enemies.
Corporations should not have to sponsor people who say things which will hurt their brand. That’s their choice. It’s, in the literal sense, their business. The Constitution is about what the government can and can’t do—not what A&E execs can and can’t do. That’s the issue I have with privatization: It erodes liberties ensured by the government.
But also, my telling you to shut up is not infringing on your constitutional rights. There is no law or ordinance against private citizens telling each other to shut their yap traps, nor should there be. The First Amendment is about the government—specifically Congress—creating laws to curb speech.
That being said—you the chattering class of conservative culture war mercenaries; you the Trumped-up, tooth-bleached, memo-driven, outrage industrial complex genuflectors; you the good-old-days evangelizing, controversy-touting, overly aghast gasbags: You don’t actually believe in free speech. So shut up.
Why am I convinced America’s right wing is not a bastion of unfettered—uninterrupted—speech impunity? I’ll sum it up in one name: Shirley Sherrod.
There was no 24-hour news cycle defense of Shirley Sherrod being able to say whatever she wanted without consequence. No. Her words were taken out of context—edited with an agenda—and she lost her job as Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture along with her reputation. Did anyone at Fox News stand up and raise an inaccurate interpretation of the scope of the First Amendment to defend Ms. Sherrod? No.
They’re for selective free speech. It’s like saying everyone has an absolute right to own a gun as long as you’re a Republican. Then you are not actually for the absolute right to own a gun. You’re for the absolute rights of Republicans.
So here’s my plea to the “decency” police—Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Gov. Bobby Jindal and their many parrots: Defend speech you don’t agree with. Stand up for the right to an opinion you don’t share.
Phil Robertson isn’t the first right wing public figure to say racist and flatly stupid things in a magazine profile. He won’t be the last. But if Free Speech is actually something you believe in then you’ll be for it when speech is offensive to you, not just when it’s offensive to those you oppose.