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The 'Duck Dynasty' Debacle: Is Tolerance Of Intolerance The Ultimate Test Of Tolerance?

A&E executives this month collided with the ideological reality of their biggest reality show star and took quick action, suspending “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson for a week and sparking the latest battle over cultural tolerance.

So multi-targeted was Robertson’s verbal spree that it’s difficult to determine who he insulted more: Gays, African-Americans, Southern whites, St. Peter, or God. In short order, Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, gay rights advocates and the NAACP weighed in, framing the controversy along familiar fault lines of punishment, recriminations and clashing definitions of tolerance.

The row’s hypocrisies nearly outnumber its root insults. Palin, while castigating A&E executives, omitted that she praised NBC’s management in November for firing Alec Baldwin after the liberal actor and short-lived MSNBC host shouted anti-gay slurs at photographers. Jindal, while bashing the “politically correct crowd” for criticizing Robertson, ignored his January warning to GOPers about the “number of Republicans that damaged the brand [in 2012] with offensive and bizarre comments.”

No one claims Phil Robertson lacks the right to say or think what he wants. They’re saying that he can’t escape the consequences of his actions.

Robertson seemed to be channeling Pastor Fred Phelps in his condemnation of gays and former Sen. Trent Lott in his idealization of the pre-civil rights South. But more than anything he reopened the debate about what should or shouldn’t be tolerated in today’s America.

Jindal’s apparent view is that offensive language, at least when it comes to gays and African-Americans, warrants no rebuke. Careful to note that he finds “quite a bit of stuff” in magazine interviews and on TV “offensive,” but equally careful to steer clear of any allusion to Robertson’s remarks, Jindal threads a curious needle: Robertson, he says, is a great citizen of Louisiana, while “the politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with.”

So the issue, as Jindal would have it, is not that Robertson believes gays morph into bestialists and, in any event, are banned from Heaven, and that African-Americans were happy and “godly” under segregation. The issue is the intolerance of Robertson’s intolerance.

At first glance, Jindal’s logic seems more knotted than a duck hunter’s lanyard. But one must remember that Jindal, if he launches a 2016 White House run, has to win Republican primaries. Many Republicans were not happy when Jindal called the GOP “the stupid party.” Perhaps Jindal glimpses redemption, and fundraising potential, in this self-described white trash reality show star.

So what is the test of tolerance? Is it the firing of Alec Baldwin (thumbs up from Sarah Palin) or the suspension of Phil Robertson (thumbs down from Sarah Palin)? Was Paula Deen treated unfairly? How about Martin Bashir? His crude remark insulted a single person. Robertson’s spiel targeted a huge swath of humanity.

If any group in America chooses to tolerate bigotry, hate speech or perfidious historical revisionism, they risk erasing the moral boundaries guiding who we are and what we aspire to be. Similarly, if any group allows a tolerance argument to be misshapen into a free speech argument — or in Jindal’s case, allow him to characterize Robertson’s comments as so anodyne that one might simply “disagree” with them — they play into the hands of the shapers. No one claims Phil Robertson lacks the right to say or think what he wants. They’re saying that he shouldn’t escape the consequences of his words.

Beyond the debate of what is tolerable and what isn’t is what makes reality shows real. Robertson’s fundamentalist Bible interpretations exposed more of his reality than A&E initially cared to endure. As they found out, reining in the real is a difficult, treacherous task.


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This program aired on December 31, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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