We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, December 27, 2013

Free Speech vs. Social Justice

The TV reality show, "Duck Dynasty," as readers surely know has become embroiled in a controversy over the comments of one of its leading figures, Phil Robertson, has made about homosexuality and other subjects.  Robertson is a conservative Christian who hold views usually associated with the religious right.  The issues this controversy have spawned are complex and quickly take one into the heart of the culture war differences between Left and Right.  Robertson has been suspended from the show, and his supporters feel that he is being deprived of the right of free speech and charges the Left with censorship motivated by political correctness.  His detractors argue that his views perpetuate fundamental social injustices, and while he may have the right of free speech personally that does not mean that others have to help him infect society with his hate speech.

However the "Duck Dynasty" shouting match plays out, the controversy it has generated is a good thing.  As has been widely observed, we are going through a remarkable transformation in our attitudes towards the LGBT community, and this incident only works to promote that change.  It focuses our attention on the fact that this form of prejudice hides itself behind religious arguments that have nothing to do with the real lives of real people.  The religious right once again turns complex biblical issues into rigid dualistic talking points that ignore the way Jesus himself embraced those on the margins, offering the possibility of a loving relationship with God that the religion of his time denied marginal people.  The way to a less intolerant, more inclusive and just society is through just such public encounters of this kind.

In the long run, the statements made by Robertson and others who hold his views constitute defamation of character and promote hate speech, which in turn promotes social injustice.  The best way to deal with those who hold such opinions, however, is not by throwing them in jail or denying them the opportunity to say what they think.  At the same time, companies, communities, and the rest of us can't be forced to help them purvey their hate speech.  We have a right to disassociate ourselves from it—and to expose it for what it is.  The way forward toward great social justice is difficult and messy, but it is the path we seem to be on when it comes to prejudice in all of its forms.  We are learning, albeit too slowly and with too much pain, to be tolerant and even accepting of the superficial differences, such as skin color and sexual orientation, between us,  In this direction lies the Kingdom,  Amen.