This post originally appeared in Business Insider.
Matt Lewis writes of the controversy over Duck Dynasty that “There really are two Americas” and that the divide over the show “has as much to do with class and geography and culture and attitude as it does with religion.”
That’s true. Specifically, there’s one America where comparing homosexuality to bestiality is considered acceptable, and another where it is rude and offensive.
In one America, it’s OK to say this of gays and lesbians: “They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.” In the other America, you’re not supposed to say that.
There’s one America where it’s OK to say this about black people in the Jim Crow-era South: “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” There’s another America where that statement is considered to reflect ignorance and insensitivity. In one America, it’s OK to attribute the Pearl Harbor attacks to Shinto Buddhists’ failure to accept Jesus. In the other America, that is not OK.
There are two Americas, one of which is better than the other. And it’s instructive who’s sticking up for the worse America.
The conservative politicians who are complaining that Phil Robertson’s firing flies in the face of “free speech” are generally smart enough to understand that Robertson doesn’t actually have a legal right to be on A&E. When Sarah Palin and her cohorts talk about the importance of “free speech,” they mean something much more specific: That the sorts of things that Robertson said are not the sorts of things a private employer should want to fire someone for saying. That they are, or ought to be, within the bounds of social acceptability.
But they’re wrong. The other America—the America I live in—has this one right. Racist and anti-gay comments and comments disparaging of religious minorities are rude and unacceptable and might cost you your job. It’s not OK to say that gay people are “full of murder.”
I will add one caveat, in the vein of Andrew Sullivan’s comments. The things Phil Robertson said should get you fired from most jobs. But starring on a reality show is a special kind of job, one where demonstrating that you are a good person who follows good social conventions may not be necessary.
For example, if at a Business Insider function I were to flip over a table and call one of my colleagues a “prostitution whore,” I’d probably be fired. But when a Real Housewife of New Jersey does that, she’s doing her job just fine. Similarly, Phil Robertson represents some very real pathologies of his culture, and his job is to provide a look into the reality of that culture to the TV viewer.
In some sense, when Robertson compares gays to terrorists, he’s doing his job, too. So I’m sympathetic to the idea that A&E shouldn’t suspend him for this. But if they shouldn’t suspend him, it’s because it’s acceptable for Robertson to say unacceptable things, not because his remarks were acceptable.