David and Jason Benham were signed to host a new show on the HGTV network called “Flip It Forward.” But a website called “Right Wing Watch” posted an audio clip of David, who is an evangelical Christian, condemning “homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation.” Suddenly, HGTV announced it was canceling the show.
The Benhams’ experience is becoming all too common today. “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robinson was suspended from his program on the A & E network for similar comments, until his audience complained. The director of a theater in Sacramento, California, was forced to resign after contributing to Proposition 8 in 2008.
The pattern: A prominent individual expresses a political view that is unpopular in many circles and he or she is not just criticized by opponents, which is entirely appropriate, but also punished. This reaction is not for a slur of a group or individual, which would be understandable, but for articulation of a political opinion.
The objective is clear — the elimination of opposing opinions from the public square. The intent is to intimidate holders of opposing views into silence. Rather than engage those who disagree, opponents force them to suffer as a public example for those who might be tempted to enter the public square and express similar views.
A major problem with American culture is the failure at times to tolerate diversity but instead to demand conformity. This is true whether it is conformity of the left or of the right. For example, only 30 years ago someone who came out as gay might be fired from their job. Advocates of same-sex marriage were rarely allowed to be heard. Similarly, in the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his supporters intimidated people who disagreed with them. University professors were fired when they refused to take loyalty oaths. Actors were blacklisted and could not find work.
It is shameful that some supporters of marriage equality are taking the same approach of an anti-gay majority or the McCarthyites of the past and refusing to accept diversity of opinions in the public square and instead favoring reprisals. And it is sad that many corporations are so afraid of the homophobic label that they acquiesce immediately to these demands. Such treatment of political diversity should have been illegal in those earlier periods, and it should be illegal today.
The solution to opinions we disagree with is not banishment; rather, it is better arguments. Our public discourse is cheapened when opposing views are rewarded with material penalties such as job loss, particularly when the expression of views has nothing to do with the job. Rather, we should be prepared to answer opposing views with logic, not threats.
When an individual is intimidated from speaking out because they fear their unpopular views will be met with a penalty, all of us suffer. We are robbed of the opportunity of having a free flow of ideas within the public square. Such withdrawal even hurts the majority because, without challenge, the majority need not justify its views but merely asserts them.
Rather than impose social or economic punishment on the holder of unpopular views, we should welcome them into public discourse. We should encourage them to present their arguments and give all of us the reasoning of their views. We must do this because dissenters, regardless of what they are dissenting from, give flesh and blood to our theories of free expression.
Even though government will not come knocking in the middle of the night for those who speak out, as is true in many nations, social and economic punishment can be just as stifling to free expression. Most people don’t want to run the risk of losing their economic livelihood for expressing their views. Hence, they will keep quiet.
Yet, the next time we are ready to pick up the torch and pitchfork to stifle the expression of an unpopular opinion, we should think first about whether our response will result in a freer society. We also might consider whether, with the shifting of public moods, we could be in the same position someday and appreciate a climate of tolerance.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.