Defending Duck Dynasty to the Death

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

I do not watch Duck Dynasty.  I know very little about the show.  For those who’ve succeeding in avoiding newspapers and news shows this week, the patriarch of the faux-reality show Duck Dynasty (Phil Robertson) has been “suspended” by A&E, the show’s broadcaster and distributor, for remarks disparaging homosexuals made during an interview recently published in GQ.  Not surprisingly, the media and online world have gone nuts about it, with fans of the show defending Mr. Robertson, LGBT groups applauding A&E’s actions, and everything in between.

Not surprisingly, both fans of the show and right-wing pundits frame the situation as a “free speech” issue.  But they are not the only ones.  The very progressive John Stewart’s take on the matter in his own reflection of Voltaire’s attitude.

I am whole-heartedly behind this position.  One of the most valuable purposes served the First Amendment is assurance that expression of a variety of ideas and beliefs will freely flow, providing a smorgasbord of ideas and beliefs from which we as individuals and society can pick and choose, build upon or leave behind.  This smorgasbord provides the very nutrients needed to grow a strong and healthy society.  A society that attempts to silence the expression of controversial, “politically incorrect,” offensive, inflammatory, or even flat-out wrong speech succeeds not in eradicating the expressed opinions and beliefs, but in driving them underground.

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Louis Brandeis, Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

This is why millions of Americans have, literally, defended to the death the right for all Americans to not only hold, but to express, their own beliefs and opinions.

But all of this has been hashed over countless times before.  What I am not seeing discussed in connection with the Duck Dynasty story is what this situation tells us about the context in which members of our society actually encounter such offensive speech and what that means for our ability to function as a healthy democracy and a strong society.

Of course, I cannot know all of the reasons for A&E’s actions, but surely commercial interests must have been at the top of the list.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  A&E is a commercial company whose reason for being in business is to provide popular entertainment.  Its reason for being is neither journalism, nor advocacy, nor education.

And yet it has become the target for accusations of First Amendment violations.  This raises two important points for discussion in the context of how we Americans encounter and interact with ideas and beliefs contradictory to our own.

First, Americans often misunderstand the nature of their First Amendment protections.  The First Amendment, among other things, prohibits the federal government from “abridging the freedom of speech of the American people.  That prohibition extends to state governments under the Fourteenth Amendment.  (Of course, there are limitations even on this prohibition, such as the ability to prohibit speech that unnecessarily creates “a clear and present danger.”)  The First Amendment most certainly does not apply to private entities such as A&E.  A&E’s actions may show disrespect to the spirit of the “free speech” concept, but they unquestionably do not violate the First Amendment, because A&E is not subject to it.

Second, and flowing from this, is the implication (I expect it is a fact, though I have not taken the time to research statistics) that, for most  Americans, the majority of encounters with beliefs and opinions contrary to their own come through commercial avenues.  We have heard much over the past few years about how the Internet, for all its wealth of diversity, may contribute to a narrowing and hardening of our existing beliefs rather than an opening of the mind.  This is because the Internet provides us with so many opportunities to identify and interact with others who think and believe as we do, and humans being are wont to seek reinforcement for our belies, not challenges to them.

And if we do not encounter challenges to our individual belief systems, how can we expect to become more understanding, empathetic, and compassionate, both as individuals and as a society?  How can we even hope to understand each other if we inoculate ourselves from encountering views contrary to our own?  How can we address our social problems if we cannot understand each other?

Historically, we have relied on journalists to report on an impartially selected range of issues in an impartial manner.  As humans being, of course, they can never completely succeed at this, but at least we have known that such is the goal of the profession of journalism.

We know that the majority of Americans, acting on that urge to reassure ourselves of our own belief systems, obtain their news from increasingly biased news outlets.  And why have these outlets proliferated?  Because they are popular.  Because Americans watch, read, and listen to them.  In other words: because they make money.

Are we doomed to encounter all of our information from sources — be they purely entertainment in nature, educational, journalistic, or other —  for whom commercial success is the primary, if not sole, purpose, who by definition censor their output to include only that which is most commercially successful?  As the lines between what I’ll call “traditional journalism” and commercial entertainment increasingly blur, and Americans bury their faces in “reality” TV shows and seek their “news” from openly biased sources, are we destined to slowly starve ourselves?  Not from a lack of food – information – per se, but from a lack of exposure to the healthy diet of diverse beliefs and opinions on which a strong, healthy society, and a true democracy, depends?