There is a saying attributed to the Buddha that says, “what you think, you become.” The adage, as I understand it, is an effort to get people to realize that their attitudes, words, and behaviors actually create the environment we inhabit.
This is the idea that I’ve been circling around ever since this Duck Dynasty nonsense. Leaving aside the nonsense part of it (and that part of it is impressive, to be sure), I am not willing, as some have suggested, to leave the entire thing be. There is something ugly and pernicious at work here, and I think it’s something that bears further investigation.
Right off the bat, let’s settle that Phil Robertson is certainly entitled to his hateful opinions. He is also entitled, thanks to the Constitution, to speak and write them, so let’s just dismiss those who are screaming that his First Amendment rights are being violated. They’re not; if they were, he’d be in jail or facing some sort of legal prosecution, or his opinions would have been censored before they even hit the airwaves, the pages of GQ, or the internets.
No, the objection that I have to Phil Robertson’s comments is that, like so many others like him, he’s using his religion and his religious beliefs as an excuse to speak hateful things about others. He, like so many others like him, present as gospel (no pun intended; that’s what I really mean) the idea that there are people who are “less than.”
So many people – a startling number of them, in fact – have come rushing to his defense, claiming that he “grew up in another era” or that his religious beliefs somehow justify the stances he takes. “He’s just speaking his beliefs; he has the right to do that.”
Yes, he does, and the rest of us have the right to call bullshit on his matter-of-fact, this-is-just-how-I-see-it, it’s-in-the-Bible bigotry.
Let’s be clear; neither your religious beliefs nor your age excuse your hatred and small-mindedness. Allowing this sort of “boys will be boys” mentality to serve as a pass for despicable behavior is a surefire way to ensure that the despicable behavior continues. If it continues, it will escalate; there are any number of people who are perfectly willing to take this “homosexuals are sinners” trope to the final, horrifying conclusion.
History – even recent history – is rife with examples of a belief taken as a justification for discrimination, torment, and murder. I can post any number of images from all over the world that will demonstrate, in living color, the atrocities that are visited on real people by those who believe, with all their hearts, that they persecute those others in the name of some holy edict.
THIS is why I’m not willing to dismiss this. When we say “it’s okay” for people to spout this kind of stuff, we say it’s okay for people to put those attitudes into practice.
I’m no longer wading into the Duck Dynasty melee. It’s too close to Christmas for me to get worked up over that much stupid and ugly; I have much more important and joyful things to do with my energy. I couldn’t let this pass, though, without reminding some folks that all our great human suffering begins with words that “other” people. Jews, American blacks, Hutus and Tutsis, Native Americans, Roma, Armenians, gays; every people which has ever been targeted began their nightmare as the subject of a systematic program of othering by a majority party. The only way we can destroy another person is if we first succeed in convincing ourselves that they’re not really a person at all. Comments, particularly off-the-cuff, “I’m just speaking about my religious belief” comments, help create an environment that enables that dehumanization.
There are a number of great quotes about refusing to stand quietly by while this sort of thing happens, but I think my favorite was penned by Elie Wiesel, a man who survived a concentration camp and who exhorts us to never forget how awful we can be to one another:
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
*Edited to include this, which was posted on a facebook wall: