To speak out is not necessarily to speak well

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2014 - 11:04 PM

The difference between courage and calumny.

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Phil Robertson

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A few items recently in the news, taken as a whole, present a classic quandary for those defending a given ideology: If one set of views, disagreeable to many, is worthy of disfavor when publicly expressed, why should other outspoken beliefs, comparably controversial, generate admiration?

Specifically, we’re talking about three guys who possess either guns, or guts or some combination thereof.

One is Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the cable television show “Duck Dynasty” who was suspended, ever so briefly, by A&E after making less-than-insightful comments about race and homosexuality, among other things, during an interview with GQ magazine. (The network lightened its reprimand after a viewer backlash.)

Another is Dick Metcalf, a columnist for Guns & Ammo magazine who was fired but good after presenting a case for the regulation of firearms, a message poorly received by readers and advertisers of that publication.

Put another way, A&E was chastised for appearing to squelch the exchange of ideas, while Guns & Ammo was chastened for daring to allow it.

The third is Chris Kluwe, the former Minnesota Vikings punter who was released after the 2012 season for reasons that may or may not have had to do with his public comments in favor of same-sex-marriage rights.

That these three were free to speak their minds is not controversial. That they were subject to their employers’ judgment as a result is not particularly contestable, either, although the question is more delicate when a person is a cog in the machine rather than a public representative of his sponsor. There is a sense of free expression in this country that extends the spirit of the First Amendment beyond its formal protections against reprisal by the government. But this doesn’t confer an entitlement to all private forums at all times, nor does it offer a shield against a critical response.

What’s more intriguing in the examples of Robertson and Metcalf are the defenses mounted in their support. This bears inspection because it’s a framework present in many debates.

• Perceived vs. actual oppression. The main rap against A&E’s original response to Robertson’s comments — the one that induced petitions and energized pundits and politicians — was one of an aggrieved Christianity stifled from expressing its sincere convictions. While it’s true that Christian minorities are persecuted in some places around the world, the percentage of people in this country who consider themselves Christian hovers above 75 percent. They freely choose where to worship and how to apply their beliefs to their own lives.

What makes biblical tenets a fair target of public scrutiny is the agency they tend to have on the lives of those with incompatible beliefs. For instance, same-sex couples in 33 states remain restrained from the benefits of legally recognized marriage, and some — as in Utah — are seeing their aspirations tossed about by the day. Questions of biblical propriety factor prominently in these debates.

• Nuance, or the lack thereof. In the GQ article, the biblically oriented Robertson comes off less as a theological mastermind and more as hopelessly naive, and that’s the point: Though overt hatred has not vanished from society, insidious discrimination and a lazy eschewal of empathy are likely to affect more people day to day.

In contrast, the column by Metcalf — a journalist with years of cachet reviewing the products of the gun industry — builds a careful case for regulations that would enhance gun ownership, not cashier it. Metcalf points out that other freedoms in the Bill of Rights are subject to reasonable restrictions, yet somehow survive. To a multibillion-dollar industry with a mulish view of the Second Amendment, his column was pure apostasy.

Which brings us to Kluwe, who burst back into public consciousness with new statements about his dismissal and who manages to embody both sides of this coin.

At this point, it seems safe to say that Kluwe is a flamethrower with little patience for those who don’t believe as he does. But his contribution to Minnesota’s marriage debate came at a critical time in 2012, and profane as it was, it was also courageous — he staked his reputation, and by his estimation his football career, on the defense of dignity. In the process, he shed light on the culture of another profitable industry.

Unlike Metcalf and Robertson, Kluwe wouldn’t naturally be considered a public face of his organization. Whether the Vikings let him go because he made news unrelated to his job isn’t clear; there are other plausible explanations. Still, he represents an archetype of outspoken activism — a style that appeals when it is employed in support of the rights of others and repels when the intent, or the effect, is to diminish the pursuit of happiness.

At the beginning of this editorial, we posed a question about perceived ideological inconsistencies on issues like the ones mentioned herein. Regular readers will know where we stand — in support of equality in matters of race and sexual preference, and in favor of reasonable restrictions on the sale and possession of guns. We believe these views are prevalent as well in the world beyond our windows. Yet it’s Robertson who remains at the helm of his cultural domain, while Metcalf and Kluwe are left to ponder the next stages of their lives. That, as they say, is a paradox of our times.

  • FURTHER READING

    Can the law place limits on the expression of social intolerance? An article by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in the New York Review of Books (tinyurl.com/onhqku8) serves as an entry point into the debate over hate speech.

    • • •

    You won’t easily find Dick Metcalf’s fateful column on the Guns & Ammo website, just the magazine’s apology for running it in the first place (tinyurl.com/pmueddf). A PDF of the original is at tinyurl.com/kren6zo.

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