What Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson Can Teach Us about Empathy
Yes, I have something to add to the Duck Dynasty controversy, wherein reality TV star Phil Robertson got in trouble for expressing anti-gay views, was suspended by A&E, and has now become the cause celebre of nitwit conservative politicians from across the land. This won't take long.
I'm not even going to bother addressing the idiocy of the "constitutional conservatives" who think the First Amendment guarantees you the legal right to (1) a cable reality show and (2) never be criticized for anything you say. Nor am I going to talk about Robertson's anti-gay statement, except to say that nobody buys you couching your bigotry in "biblical" terms just because you call yourself a Christian and throw out some scriptural references. Once you start campaigning to have people who eat shellfish and the sinners who work on the Sabbath executed (the Bible says so!) then we'll accept that you're just honoring your religion.
It's Robertson's comments about how happy black people were living under Jim Crow that I want to focus on, because they have something to teach us about empathy and individual change. Ta-Nehisi Coates says what needs to be said about the actual reality of which Robertson was so blissfully unaware, but in case you haven't seen it, here's what Robertson said about the Louisiana of his youth:
"I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field.... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people'—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."
I don't have trouble believing that Phil Robertson never saw the mistreatment of black people with his own eyes, so long as he's thinking about mistreatment as dramatic things like lynchings and cross-burnings. Maybe as a child, he wasn't aware of what life was like for black people in Louisiana in those days. But he isn't a child anymore. He's a 67-year-old man, and it's 2013. And part of being a thoughtful adult is realizing that maybe the narrow world of your childhood, as seen through a child's eyes, was not in fact the entire world. By now, Robertson has had plenty of opportunities to learn about the horror of the Jim Crow era. He can read, and I imagine he owns a television. It shouldn't be news to him. We've had a rather lengthy discussion about it over the last half-century or so.
What Robertson is saying is, "Forget about all that—the real truth lies in what I saw, which is that the black people I knew didn't complain to me about Jim Crow, so that means that for all intents and purposes it didn't exist." But empathy requires us to at least try to imagine that our own experiences might not be the same as everyone's. Sometimes it even requires that we consider the possibility that our experiences, and the perspective we originally had on them, distort reality. If your neighbor let you borrow his shovel and you thought, "What a nice guy," and then later you found out that he also used that shovel to bury the 14 runaways he murdered, you wouldn't say, "He couldn't be guilty, because he was a nice guy who once lent me his shovel." You'd understand that the shovel-lending, nice though it may have seemed at the time, didn't accurately reflect his entire person.
And they may not like it, but white people who grew up in the South during Jim Crow have an extra responsibility to reflect on their own experience, their youthful perspective, and the reality so many people endured. They lived under a terrorist regime that treated them quite well while it committed horrific crimes against their fellow citizens. It may not be fair to say to someone today, "You should have stood against it," particularly if they were young at the time. But it is fair to say that they now need to understand what it truly was, and if in 2013 they still think that blacks were "singing and happy" before they got welfare and turned all uppity, then they need to wake up.
OK, so I will say one more thing about the conservatives now rallying to Robertson's cause. The way a thinking, moral person would react to his statements is to say, "Listen, I may not agree with his views about certain things, but he's only one character on that program, and there's a lot of value there." A thinking, moral person doesn't defend nostalgia for Jim Crow and compare gay people to those who commit bestiality. If you want to love this particular sinner but hate his sin, you've got to acknowledge the sin. And my conservative friends, the next time you're wondering why gay people, black people, and pretty much anybody who is a minority of any kind all consider you intolerant? It isn't liberals unfairly maligning you. It's this kind of thing.
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