Why "If You Say Something Stupid, You'll Get Fired" May Not Be A Good Thing

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I really don’t want to type the words “The Duck Dynasty guy” anywhere into a blog post ever… but bear with me.   It’s necessary.
So when the Duck Dynasty guy got fired from his show for saying staggeringly insensitive things about black people and gays, my liberal Twitter-feed crowed about how proper this all was.  “You say something stupid, people will fire you,” they cried.  “That’s how it works, conservatives!”
Yet when Phil Robertson got un-fired because the show was too popular to cancel, I saw none of my liberal buddies telling me, “Yeah!  That’s how it works!”  Nor do I recall my pals being nearly as enthusiastic about the shellacking the Dixie Chicks took when they said they were embarrassed by President Bush and they fell off the Billboard chart.
What I saw of the whole Duck Dynasty thing involved a fair amount of gloating liberals treating “backlash” as though it was a wonderful and healthy sign the system was working. If a public figure says something stupid, they’ll get firedWhich is as it should be.  What a grand feedback system! 
Except that Jenny McCarthy has propagated not just stupid, but actively deadly science for years, and she’s co-host on the View.  Ronald Reagan infamously said that “Trees cause more pollution than cars do.”  So let’s be honest: you don’t get fired for saying something dumb.
You get fired for saying something unpopular.
And, as Duck Dynasty’s continued existence demonstrates, that’s not at all the same thing.
Anyone who’s grown up in high school knows that “popular” is a pretty sketchy fucking way to judge people.  I’m actually really nervous about using “popular” as a method of deciding who gets to stay on the air, because within my lifetime you had newscasters who could get fired for making unpopular statements like, “I’m gay, and I don’t think it’s wrong to be gay.”  Not long before that, you had people who could get fired for saying, “I think it’s good that whites and blacks can marry.”
And when I’m down at the cardiac rehab ward watching mainstream “Good Morning, America,” I think of how many unpopular statements would get these shining faces removed quickly from this all-American, appealing show: What if one of them went on the record as being polyamorous, and thinking that growing up in a polyamorous household was good for a kid?  They’d be yanked faster than good ol’ Phil, and we wouldn’t see them back.  And I’m pretty sure if one of these sunny newscasters said, “Hey, I believe the Jews deserve a safe home, but look at all the human rights abuses they heap on Palestinians,” you would see The Hook shooting out from backstage before they finished that sentence.
My point is that the pendulum is swinging now towards being sympathetic towards blacks and gay rights.  That’s a good thing.  But the pendulum itself is remarkably creepy.  If enough people in America decide you’re icky, for whatever damn reason they choose, you will not get to speak on the air.  For every “Fuck yeah, Phil the duck guy is having his ugly viewpoint punished!” moment you have, there are literally thousands of transgendered people and minorities and alt-sexualities and political philosophies you will never see on mainstream television because, hey, that talk makes people nervous.
Meanwhile, if you’ve got a lovable old beardy guy who appeals to the religious and happens to tell you that blacks had it pretty good in the days of segregation, well, he’s gonna get to stay right where he is.
That popularity contest swings a bitter blade in both directions, my friend.
And no, there’s not a really good way around that.  The First Amendment guarantees you the right to speak, but it guarantees you neither a platform nor shielding from the backlash. Networks are about ratings, and people don’t want to tune in to be made to feel uncomfortable.  The alternative’s mandating that people watch things they find abhorrent.  The best you can do is hope to find a fun way to wrap these unpopular viewpoints up in such a good show that it turns into must-see TV – the same way that Will and Grace and The Real World quietly introduced generations of isolated teenagers to gay people.
(Or you purposely speak unpopular things and take the hit, as Lenny Bruce did in the 1960s.  Which is why you can’t make a blanket statement like, “Well, saying unpopular things is stupid!”  Sometimes, you speak truth to power, knowing you’re going to get hurt for it, to make way for future generations.)
Regardless, my point is this: sometimes, you’ll win that popularity contest, and the things you hate will get voted down.  That may even be a positive outcome, if it discourages people from perpetuating harmful opinions.  But thinking that the popularity contest itself is an untrammelled goodness simply because you happened to win this time around?
No.  As a culture, we all get to vote on who gets to speak and not be punished for it.  And sometimes, that will not be you.
I think that should be a little disturbing to anyone, honestly.  It may be the American way.  It may be the only way.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a beautiful process, man.

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