The latest national crisis involves comments that Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson made in a GQ interview. Robertson's comments regarding gay men are downright offensive:
"It seems like, to me, a vagina -- as a man -- would be more desirable than a man's anus," Robertson says in the January issue of GQ. "That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical."
Robertson also is asked what he finds sinful. His answer: "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."Although Robertson's comments regarding gays and lesbians has received the most attention in the press, Robertson also makes highly problematic statements regarding race. He says that:
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person," Robertson is quoted in GQ. "Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”Robertson's comments mirror a false American cultural narrative that describes blacks as content with Jim Crow. This narrative is indisputably false. Many blacks did not complain about racism because of the violent repercussions they faced for doing so. Still many whites, especially older southern whites, accept a myth of black contentment with segregation. Jim Crow was violently imposed upon blacks; it was not a negotiated relationship.
Despite the harshness of Robertson's words, I am uncomfortable with liberal activists who demand that A&E remove him from the show. My discomfort stems from various factors. I have debated this issue with several colleagues today; so I will collect the central themes of these arguments below, rather than exploring each one in enormous detail.
First, Robertson's words were not made during the show. Instead, he made them in a magazine article. Thus, no direct connection between his words and the network exists.
And while the network probably has the right to fire Robertson, most people who are fired for out-of-work speech are not wealthy television stars. And they do not receive huge severance packages and immediate reemployment. Instead, they are average workers, who need to work in order to live.
Often, workplace speech codes are disproportionately enforced against socially vulnerable groups, including people of color and LGBT individuals. If a black person suffers a job loss after contesting racism (inside or outside of the workplace), Supreme Court interpretation of employment discrimination statutes and the First Amendment (which applies to government employers) has made it much easier for private and public employers to avoid liability.
Second, a rush to fire someone for controversial speech suggests that only one approach -- the least forgiving -- exists to address the situation. A dialogue over the issues and how the speech might harm certain communities seems off the table. Instead, opponents seek blood.
In my own teaching and scholarship, I have criticized US culture for lacking basic compassion for people who transgress certain norms. This unsympathetic culture explains why the US has the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world and the harshest sentences for nonviolent crimes. The US can be very unforgiving.
Seeing liberals embrace this approach is disturbing. There are many other things that the network could do under these circumstances (suspension, diversity training, warning, etc.). Instead, Robertson's opponents seek the death penalty.
Third, and most importantly, the anti-Robertson advocacy (once again) elevates isolated incidents of bigotry over structural inequality. Robertson is one private individual. He made his comments during an interview on his own time. A&E did not broadcast the comments during the show. Nevertheless, liberal activists believe the network should fire Robertson for his racism and homophobia. Most contemporary liberal groups follow a similar type of advocacy: Person X says something outrageously offensive. Liberal groups demand that Person X lose his or her job. Person X loses his or her job. Liberal groups rejoice. Person X gets another job. Racism, sexism, and homophobia remain intact.
Individual acts of bigotry excite and inflame the nation much more than structural inequality. As a corporate entity concerned about its profits, A&E would never make the statements that Robertson uttered. But, a cursory look at A&E's lineup reveals that it does not have much in terms of programming for LGBT youth. They are invisible on the network. Furthermore, most of the black and Latino persons on the network are criminals and crime victims (see the numerous weekly episodes of The First 48). The invisibility of LGBT youth and the stereotypical depiction of blacks and Latinos by large cultural institutions can cause much more harm than isolated acts of bigotry. In fact, a large body of psychological literature demonstrates that that cultural and systemic inequality causes more individual distress to minority group members than actual incidents of discrimination. The perception of second-class citizenship and fear of discrimination make them emotionally vulnerable and mentally distressed.
Also, institutionalized oppression limits economic opportunities and political power of marginalized groups. Despite the deep and dispersed harms it causes, institutional oppression does not generate anything close to the animated and loud liberal responses as discrete and isolated bigotry. For example, if the major newspapers provide an accurate insight into the mindset of antiracist organizations, then Paula Dean, George Zimmerman, and Phil Robertson are the most troubling things to impact persons of color this year. High unemployment, political inequality, resegregation of public schools, and other structural problems seem minor, by comparison.
When I raise this criticism, liberals typically say: "but we can respond to both types of inequality." This is true, but the responses are quite disparate. You "can" respond to institutional inequality, but, typically, you do not.
I am convinced that people who dismiss the importance of responding to institutional oppression doubt its existence, or they believe that simply responding to individual bigotry will mitigate institutional oppression. Institutional inequality, however, is not the sum of individual bigotry. It exists within and outside of individual behavior. The injuries it causes are generational and widespread.
If any form of inequality warrants more attention, it is the structural kind. Yet, liberal activism focuses on individualized prejudice. Firing Robertson will only perpetuate this troubling social movement behavior.