Over the last month or so, it seemed like everyone was talking about the homophobic and racist comments made by Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty. Many, including libertarians, advocated for firing the Duck Dynasty star as a means of ostracizing him and punishing him. This way, our society can deal with these harmful beliefs without using state violence.
After a brief suspension, A&E decided to reinstate Phil Robertson. Despite my deep disagreement with his statements, I am glad for their decision. Like any person or business, A&E had every right to disassociate themselves from Phil Robertson. Yet, for those whose goal is to change the harmful belief systems that led to the comments in GQ, I think firing him would have been counterproductive.
In many ways, I agree with those who called for him to be fired. Phil Robertson’s views are harmful, and the bigoted mindset threatens the liberty of people by othering them. Culture does matter in the pursuit of liberty. However, is a culture that punishes someone for their opinion really any more conducive to liberty than the bigoted belief system?
There is a sometimes subtle but important difference between rejecting the belief and rejecting the person, between calling out the error in someone’s words and calling for a person to be punished. It is easy to label people as “good” or “bad” based on the beliefs they hold, but the world isn’t that simple. We must be careful not to ostracize the one who others. Most of the people who hold these beliefs are not bad people or stupid people, they are just misinformed by narrow experiences.
Even if you think it is justified, ostracizing and punishing is unlikely to be an effective way to combat harmful belief systems and is more likely to perpetuate the us vs. them mentality. Some groups even intentionally isolate themselves from the outside world in order to maintain their rigid and harmful beliefs. When the groups that are most isolated are the ones who are least accepting of diversity, why do we continue to try to ostracize people to counter these beliefs?
As a child, I was actually taught the same misguided beliefs about homosexuality that Phil Robertson holds. I was sheltered and isolated from opposing viewpoints. It was not through punishment or ostracism that I learned that what I was taught was terribly wrong. Beliefs are very complex, but ultimately, are formed based on experiences. My beliefs changed only when I broadened my experiences and was introduced to the world outside of the religious group that perpetuated those harmful beliefs.
Being on a national TV show and connecting with many types of people he otherwise would never know might actually be the best chance of shifting the beliefs held by Phil Robertson. Cutting him off from this broadening of experience does nothing to counter his narrow beliefs and probably even perpetuates them. In the New Year, let’s save ostracizing as a last resort and instead focus on engaging with misguided people and expanding their thoughts and experiences when we can.