Phil Robertson Firing a Setback For Tolerance

A&E "suspended" Phil Robertson for not having the proper opinion about homosexuality. The 67-year-old fundamentalist Christian considers homosexuality a sin like drunkenness and bestiality. This was too much for the network with shows featuring compulsive hoarders, an octogenarian ex-governor who served eight years in federal prison and now lives with a trophy wife young enough to be his granddaughter, and (until recently) a bounty hunter whose televised exploits combined violent arrests of fugitives with scenes of the bounty hunter's dysfunctional family.

Even on this primetime freak show, homophobia is forbidden. 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.

According to a poll conducted in January of this year, 37 percent of Americans believe homosexuality is a sin, down from 44 percent in 2011. The seven percent decrease didn't happen because Americans woke up one day and decided to be more tolerant. Gay rights activists won hearts and minds through dialogue. Sometimes, it was the private dialogue of a family learning about a gay relative. Sometimes, it was the public dialogue of gay characters on Modern Family or activists talking on the news. Ending that public dialogue, and instead enforcing mandatory tolerance, will ultimately be a setback for gay rights.

As a social liberal, I think this is progress. But it comes at a cost. Making tolerance mandatory for public figures robs America of public dialogue around an important social issue. On the surface, this appears to give us a more tolerant world, since slurs and offensive opinions go unheard. But anti-gay opinions will not go away because Phil Robertson or other celebrities are not saying them. Prejudice will just be isolated in groups where it is widespread, and those people will be even less likely to change their opinions. Those opinions will harden as the people who have them, people who mostly come from the same background as Phil Robertson, believe they are being attacked by mainstream society.

Not everyone with anti-gay opinions is a bigot. Some of them are people who have never examined the traditional values they grew up with. Public dialogue lets them do that, which is why Plato considered it an essential part of a democratic society. Rather than "suspending" the elder Robertson from Duck Dynasty, A&E should feature at least one reality show about homosexuals. People watching would see that gays and lesbians can be weird enough to rival even the bizarre lawmen featured on Cajun Justice.

That won't happen. A&E has no interest in actually promoting tolerance, just in preventing public anger and internal backlash from gay employees. But liberals should know better. They pride themselves on being tolerant of competing viewpoints and are usually outraged when corporations punish employees for their speech. It's a shame those values only extend to people liberals agree with.