December 2013 in the USA was marred by the controversy surrounding the comments made by Phil Robertson. Known to most through his family’s wildly popular reality-TV series on A&E, “Duck Dynasty”, Robertson made waves in his GQ interview where he made the following two comments.

First regarding the moral decay and acceptance of sinful behavior in America,

 phil_robertson“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong… Sin becomes fine. 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.. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

He went on to state his inability to understand same-sex attraction,

phil_robertson“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. 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.”

His personal opinion, described by most detractors as “anti-gay”, garnered a quick response from the A&E Network which suspended Robertson from the show, but shortly thereafter reversed their decision due to public pressure.

I had no intent of ever writing about this story because of the plethora of articles already written. But today, as I was doing some research for my ethics course, I read some comments written more than a century ago that have relevance to the conversation because they give us perspective beyond our culture.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was a Utilitarian thinker who wrote one of his most influential essays in 1869 titled, “On Liberty“. Although I do not share Mill’s worldview, we live in an age where some political activists find it necessary to silence dissenting voices in favor of “tolerance”.  We use the word “bullying” to describe speech that makes us uncomfortable and we cry “racism” to incite a Government response and justify the silencing of speech. In response to Phil Robertson’s comments, Piers Morgan, a British citizen who came to America to expand his wealth tweeted out the following.

But that is just it, we don’t need our Constitution to protect popular speech, the 1st Amendment exists to protect the unpopular speech of “vile bigots.”

While it is understandable that Morgan, coming from a country that does not constitutionally protect speech, is ignorant of the principles upon which America was founded, it is disturbing that so many US citizens lack the educational context for why free speech is so important. It is precisely because society changes its opinions about what is “vile” that the US Constitution protects all speech. On just the issue of gay-rights alone, look how quickly American sensibilities have shifted. Some, like Brian Jencunas of the Huffington Post, see these changes as a positive.

America has come a long way since 1997, when ABC stopped promoting Ellen DeGeneres’s television show after criticism about its depiction of homosexuality. Back then, gay marriage was illegal in every state and sodomy laws in 16 states criminalized gay sex. Today, homosexual characters are a mainstay of cable and network television, gay marriage is legal in 18 states, and sodomy laws are unconstitutional.

And this all points to why Phil Robertson’s comments must be allowed to stand without fear. In contrast to these current trends, I think some of Mill’s words from chapter 2 of his essay are worth remembering.

john_stuart_millLet us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

In other words, to silence one voice is to silence all. No matter how many public opinion polls we can cite, to silence the voice of dissent is always an abuse of power.

What if Phil Robertson were not a Millionaire with a popular TV show?  What if he was not able to stand by his convictions for fear of losing his livelihood?  Robertson would have survived this scandal no matter the outcome, but other men of lesser means and popularity would have been destroyed. The Constitution exists for this very reason to protect the unpopular speech of every citizen who does not have  wealth and power, but only their voice.

Mill goes on to write about why it is so important for a society to give place to the small voice of disagreement.

john_stuart_millBut the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

In the dozens of articles I have read these past weeks denouncing Phil Robertson, I have yet to read a single one that makes a reasoned argument for “why” he is wrong. The response from those who called for his show to be cancelled have simply been to call Robertson names such as “Redneck”, to label his speech as “hate”, threaten his family with death, or to shame anyone who dares to agree with him as a “bully” and a “bigot.” Lacking the ability to reason, people turn to labels that carry strong political overtones in an effort to threaten people into silence. The result, as Mill points out, is that we, as a society, lose the opportunity to exchange truth for error and we lose the hope of gaining clearer perspective by the collision of our error.

It is my hope that in 2014 we will do more than “tolerate” others with whom we disagree, but that we will learn to dialogue, share a meal, and see the “other” person, flaws and all, as loved by God.

*Photo credit, GQ Magazine.

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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