RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., December 20, 2013 – The purported controversy surrounding the interview of Duck Dynasty’s patriarch, Phil Robertson, underlines the blurred distinction between Conservatives and Liberals that we have begun to witness. Pathological proponents of both constituencies have gravitated toward attacking one another with the same arguments anytime an otherwise meaningless public figure makes a comment that doesn’t conform to their respective platform positions. Perhaps this paradox will force both sides to try something different: respecting their differences; listening to the other side; and forming a fully-informed opinion based upon fact rather than Party doctrine.
We could pick the faux pas of our choice to serve as examples, but let’s stick with the most recent two to highlight the hypocrisy (i.e., Martin Bashir and Phil Robertson).
Both sides are quick to claim “free speech” under the First Amendment to justify the right of an individual to make whatever crass comment they so choose. Let’s examine that Amendment to examine whether it’s applicable:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Congress clearly hasn’t made any law that is applicable to the commentaries Messrs. Bashir and Robertson chose to exercise. Correspondingly, not all speech is protected. There are exceptions: defamation, speech that incites a riot, “fighting words,” etc.
Mr. Bashir chose to make a vulgar attack on a high-profile female during the course of his news program. Liberals, who are otherwise quick to charge Conservatives with perpetually waging a War on Women, found it convenient to ignore the misogynistic overtone of Mr. Bashir’s comment and quickly tried to provide “context” for his statement.
MSNBC, which Conservatives like to vilify as a shill for the Left, was sufficiently embarrassed by Mr. Bashir’s behavior to be moved to accept his resignation. It should be noted that MSNBC also canceled another show whose host used a homosexual slur outside of the context of his short-lived show.
Mr. Robertson chose to degrade an entire class of people while expressing his interpretation of religious doctrine during the course of an interview. Conservatives, who are otherwise quick to charge Liberals for holding a double standard, applied a double standard. They, too, tried to provide “context” for his statement.
Similar to MSNBC’s reaction to Mr. Bashir’s remark, A&E moved more quickly to distance itself from Mr. Robertson’s statements and took relatively immediate job action against him in the form of an indefinite suspension.
Some Liberal pundits were appalled that MSNBC “caved” to public outrage when it accepted Mr. Bashir’s resignation. After all, he had the right to express his opinion. Many of those same pundits were quick to condemn Mr. Robertson for the expression of his opinion.
Similarly, some Conservative leaders just can’t understand how A&E can suspend a man for expressing his religious beliefs. Many of these same people had criticized MSNBC for failing to have immediately fired Mr. Bashir.
Are there differences between the contexts of Mr. Bashir’s and Mr. Robertson’s comments? Yes.
Mr. Bashir made his statements while on the air for MSNBC, which creates a closer nexus between Mr. Bashir and his employer than exists in the case of Mr. Robertson’s interview for GQ Magazine. GQ has no direct affiliation with A&E, and Mr. Robertson’s comments were not made within the context of his show.
Correspondingly, Mr. Bashir made a personal attack on a public figure, while Mr. Robertson succeeded in offending an entire class of people who have not necessarily consented to being in the public limelight.
Which of these differences is more significant? It depends on your bias.
Are there other differences? Of course!
Mr. Bashir dresses in expensive suits and conducts himself with a condescending air that reflects an intellectual disdain for anyone who disagrees with his position. Conversely, Mr. Robertson dresses in camouflage and pretends to leave final judgment to God while exercising his personal judgment on Earth.
Yet, the two men and situations are actually quite similar.
Mr. Bashir and Mr. Robertson were expressing opinions based on their personal beliefs. Both had the misfortune of doing so in a way that was hurtful to others. Both have apologized (at least to some degree) to those they offended. Both have suffered professional consequences as a result of their conduct.
While MSNBC and A&E have taken slightly different paths with regard to the related job actions (one passive and one proactive), they both chose to sanction their “stars.” Devout Conservatives thought that MSNBC should have acted immediately, but that A&E should not have acted at all (other than to state that Mr. Robertson’s opinions did not reflect those of the network). Not surprisingly, fervent Liberals thought that MSNBC should have limited its punishment to Mr. Bashir’s on-air apology, but that A&E has been correct in taking immediate disciplinary action against Mr. Robertson.
So, what’s the reality, particularly in the wake of Reality TV?
Both men have the right to share their opinions in whatever way they choose. Both men have the responsibility to accept the consequences of their actions.
Both networks have the right to weigh the consequences of their response to such controversies. Both likely considered the impact on ratings, advertising revenue, audience alienation, etc. before reaching their decisions.
Mr. Bashir’s ratings were not stellar. Do not expect to see him back on the air any time soon in his former capacity.
Mr. Robertson’s ratings were stellar, and he has the leverage of having his family comprise the entire cast of his show. Expect to see him back on the air at some point.
In today’s corporate-political complex, don’t be surprised if NBC picks up Duck Dynasty as a primetime show, while A&E creates a new reality show based on the life of an unemployed news/infotainment personality.
What if we accepted the fact that human frailties exist; that the opinions of media personalities bear no profound credibility nor special exemption from good taste; and that Sampson’s weapon of choice can slay careers as well as Philistines? What if we didn’t react so violently to the opinions of others that may differ from our own? What if we actually used these instances as learning experiences and as the basis for a civil assessment of the issues? Rather than further dividing our Country, perhaps we would expose ignorance and hate in a way that would bring us together.
Hypocrisy is alive and well in America among our political extremes. Both factions have built dynasties we just can’t duck. Let us hope that in every instance, there will be an opportunity to turn off the biases … or at least change the channel.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.