Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

Over the past few days I finished reading Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option. The rough argument of this book is that in order to live a life ordered by God, Christians cannot continue to unreflectively participate in the social, cultural, political and economic institutions of modern society as these are contrary to Christianity. As a result it is the task of Christians to create parallel institutions and forms of communal life that allow them to sustain the Christian way of life as society moves in a post-Christian direction dominated by nihilistic individual freedom, consumerism, avarice and hedonism. Dreher calls this approach “the Benedict Option” and rightly points out that this shift would require Christians to sacrifice worldly success in favour of preserving their faith in many cases. The title is reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s closing comment in After Virtue that like St. Benedict who created a form of monastic life in the late Roman Empire to preserve virtue and learning amidst its collapse, those who are concerned to live a life of virtue will have to create new forms of communal life to foster virtue amidst the new dark ages of bureaucratic state capitalism. Dreher is not suggesting that Christians cut themselves off from modern society, but that they have to intentionally create alternative forms of life that do not fit with the ethos of our age.

Now, given that I am not a Christian this book was not written for me. Much of it is an exhortation to Christians to see the way in which modern society corrodes the virtues of charity, hope and agape that the Gospel makes primary. So why did I read it?

I read it for two related reasons. For one I spent a significant part of my undergraduate and graduate study on the works of Aristotle, and consider myself to be something of an Aristotleian, although a relatively unorthodox one. Furthermore, for me, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a powerful critique of modernity that any Aristotleian who seeks to reform modernity needs to address. In light of that I was interested in reading Dreher’s book because of the fact that it was inspired by MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and could be arguably said to reflect MacIntyre’s exhortation that modernity cannot be reformed to be made consonant with the life of virtue.

Secondly, over the past couple of years I have begun reading articles on The American Conservative, an online journal that Rod Dreher edits. I was drawn to this journal because it presents a sophisticated conservative Christian perspective of the world that is critical of many aspects of modernity that are concerning to me such as consumerism, instrumentalism and historical/cultural illiteracy, but at the same time stands opposed to my left-liberal political positions in its endorsement of a conservative Christian approach to ethics and politics.

I will give Dreher credit as his book is clearly written, and avoids being overly academic while retaining a significant degree of sophistication. Furthermore, those who already agree with Dreher about the nature of modernity and its opposition to Christian life, will find useful suggestions for how they can preserve their way of life. However, my issue with this book is that it does very little to convince those who are not already convinced of Dreher’s diagnosis of modernity and understanding of the Christian faith. This may be by design but if so, this was a mistake within the design of the work, as Dreher is very clear that he wants to bring people to an authentic Christian way of life, which means one of his goals is not merely to show Benedictines how to proceed, but to convince those who see the Benedict Option as an error and misunderstanding of modernity. Dreher has no expectation that he will change the culture at large, but he wants to help people see the light even if they are not already convinced.

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

In The Benedict Option, Dreher asserts as opposed to argues that the modern account of freedom and authenticity are inherently nihilistic and self-centered with their focus on the satisfaction of all desires and cannot be reconciled with the notion that the Christian God sets proper limits on man’s freedom. While this is a typical cultural conservative reading of modern individualism it is peculiar that while Dreher invokes Charles Taylor’s account of the change from premodern to modern attitudes in Latin Christendom he does not make much of an effort to engage with Taylor’s defense of freedom and authenticity. For Taylor, the conservative reading of the demand for individual authenticity as nihilistic and self centered is inaccurate and problematic because it covers over the sense in which individual authenticity is about growth towards a more fully developed self. The notion of individualism and authenticity may tend to be used as a justification for satisfaction of all base desires, but the thought undergirding this notion imply a notion of particularized teleology in which each agent has the responsibility to develop to the fullest according to their unique nature. This of course removes the idea that there could be a single standard for human excellence, but it is more complex than a simple sensuous hedonism, as your life can be a failure if you just pursue your basest desires and conform rather than developing your unique essence.

Now, given that I am not a Christian I do not want to get into the debate of whether Christian faith can be reconciled with the modern conception of authenticity as I am simply not learned enough about Christian theology to have an informed opinion. But given that Taylor, is a practicing Roman Catholic who identifies himself strongly with the Christian faith and with the post romantic expressivist concept of authenticity it is not simply obvious that Dreher is warranted in asserting the irreconcilability of authenticity and Christianity. Furthermore, many of the sources of post romantic expressivist tradition which gives birth to the idea of authenticity emerge from the tradition of Christianity. In particular, Herder and Hegel come to mind as thinkers who tried to reconcile both the demand for authenticity and Christian faith. There is a debate here and one that requires those who see these poles as irreconcilable to address them.

Relatedly, Dreher draws on Phillip Rieff to argue that the culture of modernity is an anti-culture, rather than a true culture as it places no prohibitions on desire and does not have a sense of what it is good to be, that informs and drives its practises and norms. For the reasons pointed out above this seems to be an intellectually uncharitable account of modern culture that focuses on the fact that liberation from previous forms of tradition is built into the notion of authenticity, without realizing that the demand for authenticity is a standard, and one that is broadly shared. The demand that we develop ourselves by looking inside at what we really want to be and truly admire is as much a standard as the requirement of following an orthodox reading of the Gospel.

Now, Dreher does gesture towards the fact that there are other standards as he notes that many Christians in the USA are not in fact Christians, but Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. Moralistic Therapeutic Deists believe that:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While there may be some resonance between point 3 and the demand for authenticity and individuality, the way that point 3 is formulated purposefully emphasizes the hedonistic aspect of the demand for being self-directed, rather than the fact that the pursuit of authenticity is not simply about feeling good about oneself but of achieving one’s particular excellence. The authentic life may involve feeling good about oneself, but feeling good about oneself is not enough for authenticity. We might say that in terms of authenticity original sin involves not listening to the voice of God in our hearts, but obeying the voice of worldly pleasure or acclaim. Authenticity in this regard has no necessary place for Grace in that the voice within does not necessary require God’s Grace to be heard, but still the demand for authenticity is related to Augustine spirituality and not necessarily opposed to it. It is perfectly plausible to argue that finding one’s authentic way of life requires God’s Grace even if it is possible to formulate authenticity without allusion to Grace. As a result, Dreher’s reading of modern notions of fulfillment are particularly uncharitable, and do not engage with the richness involved in these ideas as we can see by the way in which he tries to frame the demand for authenticity either as nihilistic self-seeking or the pursuit of feeling good about oneself.

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

Throughout his book Dreher discusses people who are pursuing the Benedict Option in their own lives and exhorts others to follow in their footsteps. This often involves raising children according to a specifically Classical-Christian education with the church and the faith as the centre of their lives. Now, it is certainly true that every culture inculcates their children with a specific sense of the good , and modernity is no more free of inculcating a specific set of cultural mores than Benedictine communities are. So, from this narrow perspective it is a merely a matter of which form of education and acculturation is superior. However, there are two other aspects of this issue which Dreher does not touch on in any significant depth that need to be discerned. The first pertains to the right to exit a community and the second pertains to the fact that people drawn to the Benedict Option in Dreher’s work, including Dreher himself, tend to be converts who have seen the light as opposed to people raised in Benedictine style communities. In both cases, while I would absolutely defend Dreher’s right to withdraw and live in a Benedictine community I am not sure if the good of children is being fully considered in the construction of Benedictine communities. This perspective reflects my unapologetic liberalism and I am sure Dreher would disagree, but again I think that Dreher needs to confront these objections head on, which he does not do within his book.

With regard to the right to exit, in Brian Barry’s Culture and Equality Barry makes the apt point that communities have the right to raise their children according to their own values and norms within the bounds of the law. Furthermore, while it is true that this means many children will stay in cultural communities that they disagree with and find stifling, because they do not want to sever ties with their families, the state should not try to use state coercion to ensure that these communities have more “inclusive” values. Here, Barry makes a distinction between internal costs of exiting a community, and external costs of exiting a community. Internal costs are those associated with losing contact with friends and family, excommunication; these internal costs are costs that those who leave must bare because while they are significant they are internally related to the goods and practises of the community in question.

Religious communities, as associations, have every right to excommunicate someone who fails to obey the rules of the community, and there is no requirement that they adopt the rules of behaviour to the wisdom of mainstream society. They cannot coerce the person, but they can ban them from the association. However, the challenge occurs when a community is structured in a way that leaving it does not merely mean leaving familial ties and affective ties, but in which leaving the community will deprive you of what you are entitled to as a citizen of the state. The example that Barry gives is of the Amish in Pennsylvania who have right to opt out of paying social security as employer and employees. As a result, if an Amish person decides to leave they are not entitled to social security commensurate with the time they have worked. This places an unfair burden and an external cost on exiting the community, and one that disadvantages those who have a desire to leave the community, including the young.

Now, it is not clear if Dreher would see it as legitimate to opt out of social security or other forms of government entitlements that bestow benefits on all individual citizens of a particular state. But the demand to develop parallel institutions creates the risk of depriving children of what they are entitled to as citizens. So, Dreher needs to address this concern as it could form a significant objection to his project.

Secondarily, the fact that many members of Benedictine Communities come to these communities later in life after seeing that the life of consumerism, career ambition and modernity are unsatisfying, raises the question of whether their commitment to their faith is so strong because they have made the choice to reject modern idols and live an orthodox Christian life. If children are raised within Benedictine Communities that focus on a particular interpretation of the gospels rather than the free wheeling notion of freedom and authenticity, will they be given an equivalent opportunity to explore and come to understand what they think makes life significant as those who have joined these communities after living in the mainstream of society and finding it wanting. Again, the answer to this question are not clearly answered in The Benedict Option, but some of the language of shaping children seems to me to echo the Platonic mistake of trying not merely to portray the beauty of their communities’ way of life, but of ensuring that the community continues indefinitely without change. If Benedictine Communities go down this path and deny children the opportunity to explore other modes of thought and life in a charitable manner, but simply try to ensure that their account of Christian life continues they will be denying children the ability to take full responsibility for their lives. This reduces children to means to continuance of a way of life, and disrespects their fundamental dignity. Furthermore, this dignity is reflected in the Gospel by the notion of freewill. All need to come to God willingly, not because their pastor, father, husband or wife wants them to.

Altogether, I encourage other non-Christians to read The Benedict Option because of the honesty of its perspective and the challenge that it poses. While this book is not for us, there are valuable insights in it about the corrosive effects of modernity that any person looking for significance in their life can appreciate. However, it does leave much to be desired in its failure to charitably engage with modernity and I hope that defenders of the book and Dreher rise to the occasion to charitably engage with modernity.

The Inability to be at Home in the World: Religion, Salvation and Value Pluralism

It is rare for a human being to be completely at home in the world. No matter how well things go for us we have a sense that our lives are missing something important. As we move about our lives we may have moments of exquisite joy, and we may feel that our lives are going extraordinarily well, and yet it always seems, for me at least, like my life is incomplete as it misses out on some valuable good. In this entry I would like to point out that while traditional religions like Christianity are very good at explaining this incapability of humans to be at home in the world, the Berlinian philosophy of value pluralism is also adept at explaining it. In a sense, this entry is meant to be a response to theorists like Peter Lawler who contrast the attempt to make humans at home in the world through technological and social progress with traditional religion’s acceptance of this anxiety as a necessary part of our worldly condition. For theorists in this tradition of thought the fact that we have not gotten rid of human anxiety and made human beings entirely at home in the world is a testament to the truth of traditional religion, and Christian faith in particular. While this contrast discloses an element of reality, by not making mention of non-religious philosophies that can make room for the human incapability to be at home in the world, it leaves out something very important.

Many traditional religions are adept at explaining our inability to be at home and our perennial sense that there is something more, but for the sake of this entry I will examine Christianity in particular. At its most basic thinkers like Lawler point out that society or nature is not our natural home, and in these places we are still estranged from God no matter how idyllic the environment we inhabit is. We are creatures who have fallen from grace and while we may be able to get closer to God through faith and religious practise, our anxieties will not be abolished as long as we are estranged from him, and we will remain at least somewhat estranged during this life. This explanation is powerful, and while I am not a Christian I cannot help but find it beautiful in a certain way.

On the other hand, we might explain our inability to be at home in the world by looking to the nature of value. According to Berlin, and his many followers, values are incommensurable or incompatible in some basic sense. Thus, while it may be true that life of a monk and the life devoted to artistic creativity are both valuable, these values cannot be simply evaluated according to simple criteria, and further these goods may not be able to be woven into the life of person or the life of a community.

For example, if I commit myself to the pursuit of artistic creativity this necessarily means that I will not be able to fully develop other goods in my life like familial affection, or the life of quiet reflection, as goods must be developed and commitment to one good tends to exclude others. That said, there is no reason to commit to one single good, but even for those of us who try to combine many goods into a single life, there is a limit to which goods can be combined into a single life. For example, I may appreciate the generosity and courage exemplified in the life of the aristocrat who takes care to make sure that his subjects are protected and well cared for, but I could not combine these goods with a life that affirms the legal and political equality of human beings. I cannot be an excellent aristocrat while being an excellent jobholder in a liberal democratic society.

From this understanding of value we might say that the reason why we are unable to feel completely at home in the world in our lives is because our lives always lack a significant array of goods that we recognize as valuable despite their incompatibility with the goods we have built our lives around. These goods that we lack call to us and tell us that there is something more, but yet they cannot be coherently brought into our lives without destroying other goods that we hold dear. So we are never to be completely satisfied or at home with the lives we build as they always remain the cobbling together of many valuable things, but at the expense of others that we never stop longing for. This longing is what underlies our lack of ability to be at home in the world. Consequently, an affirmation of value pluralism can serve as another basis for explaining our perennial anxiety and sense that there is more, and thus traditional religion does not have the monopoly on being able to explain the human inability to be at home in the world. Therefore, the contrast is not simply between technological and social progress directed towards eliminating all anxiety and traditional religion.

On Tragedy: Abrahamic, Ancient Greek and Modern Horizons

The term “tragedy” and “tragic” are bandied about in many contexts, but what exactly is it about a situation that makes it tragic? I want to suggest that the everyday use of the word tragic within developed European and North American societies is deeply out of step with the Shakespearean understanding of tragedy and more in line with the way that tragedy is understood in Ancient Greek drama.  Furthermore, this seems to be the case because there are some deep similarities between our understanding of the universe and the Ancient Greek understanding.

For Shakespeare what makes something tragic is rooted in the notion of hamartia or tragic flaw. For example, Julius Caesar is tragic because the protagonist, Brutus,  is an admirable man in almost every way  and yet he is driven by his hubris to act in ways that not only destroy himself, but also many others.  In this sense Brutus can plausibly be viewed as blameworthy for his actions, and so as someone who is punished for his tragic flaw. What makes this tragic as opposed to just being due punishment is that Brutus is very admirable, and thus we find his punishment both appropriate and regrettable. In this sense Shakespearean tragedy is very much rooted in the notion of a divine or cosmic justice, and this is very central to all Abrahamic faiths.

This conception of tragedy seems to hardly be at play by the way we typically use the term. We typically say that those young people who die in freak accidents or of disease have tragic fates. Consequently, what makes the death of the young by disease or freak accidents tragic is that they experience a great evil through no fault of their own, and consequently are not given an opportunity to live a fully developed life. Their deaths seems senseless as they have had horrible fates that do not seem to be part of any divine plan, as opposed to their deaths being merited, but regrettable.

On the other hand in Ancient Greek drama and, in particular, in the plays of Sophocles, we see a notion of tragedy that is far more like the one we ordinarily use, that that which is present in Shakespeare. For example, in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus eventually realizes that unknowingly and unwilling he has killed his Father, and married and had four children with his Mother.  Once Oedipus realizes the truth about who his parents are, he blinds himself in a fit of psychological distress and is exiled from Thebes and thus is not able to live a fully developed human life, as he is separated from his family, his home and his city, and the general fellowship of others.

Although, it should be noted that some have seen Oedipus as having the tragic flaw of an all consuming desire for knowledge, but even if this could be construed as a flaw, Oedipus’ desire for knowledge does not seem to be unreasonable, or the fundamental reason for his discovery of the truth about his own birth. Oedipus does not pay heed to Teiresias’ warning to not try to discover the reason for the previous King’s death, but he does not pay heed to this warning as it seems like a convenient ruse that would allow Creon, his wife’s brother, to take power. In addition Teiresias does not seem to offer any convincing reason for Oedipus to stop pursuing the truth; instead he just gives warnings of the doom that will come if Oedipus takes this path.  So, Oedipus does not seem to be someone who is blameworthy in any significant sense. Consequently, our conception of tragedy seems closer to the Ancient Greek understanding, as in both cases we think of tragedy as occurring when individuals experience great evils that prevent them living fully developed lives through no fault of their own.

Is it a mere historic accident that our conception of tragedy is more similar to the Ancient Greek conception than to the Shakespearean understanding? I don’t think so. I think it reflects the fact while we are the inheritors of a culture that is deeply rooted in Abrahamic faiths, many of our modes of thought resemble Ancient Greek thought.

Before I go any further I would like to contrast Ancient Greek and Abrahamic religion as this is necessary background for the rest of this discussion. The God of Abrahamic faiths is typically seen as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. But this conception of God seems out of place in other forms of religion such as Ancient Greek religion. In these religions the Gods are certainly far more powerful than human beings, but they are not the eternal, necessary, morally mandated all powerful rulers of the universe. This can be seen by the fact that the fates that control all destinies are a separate agency from the Olympian Gods and thus can plausibly be seen as not under the authority of Zeus. Similarly, the Olympian Gods were not the initial rulers of the universe, but rather Zeus was able to overthrow his father Cronos through his power and cunning, rather than because he possesses some form of moral superiority.  So, in essence in Abrahamic faiths God is the morally mandated ruler of the universe, whereas in Ancient Greek religion the rulers of cosmos are but successful agencies who have managed to achieve the rule of the cosmos.

The similarity between the Ancient Greek conception of tragedy and our conception of tragedy is no coincidence.  Instead, it reflects the changing background understanding that western societies have of the universe.  Many of our current modes of thought do not reflect a universe in which a benevolent ruler ensures that good will ultimately triumph, but rather see the universe as a collection of forces that just is rather than being something that ought to be.  For example, “the environment” is one such force as it is not something that is amoral and not something fully under our control, and yet it can cause horrible damage to our lives. Likewise, “the market” is another. In our case these forces are impersonal things like “the environment,” “the market”, “the economy,” and “society” among others, whereas for the Ancient Greeks the forces that dominated the universe had the characteristics of persons. But the similarity runs deep as in both cases the universe is not something that operates according to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God’s rational plan, but according to the interplay of forces that are amoral. Against this kind of cultural background it makes sense to say that horrible things can happen to people through no fault of their own, and that these acts form no part of any divine plan, and so are tragic.

This is not to suggest that there are no Abrahamic elements of our culture, as there are many, such as our notion of progress, but instead that our society’s culture also contains quasi Pagan elements, and so our culture is far more than a simple secularization of Abrahamic cultural norms.

The Hypocrite in Western Liberal Democratic Culture

Within western liberal democracies, the sin of hypocrisy is viewed as particularly pernicious. This is evidenced by the fact that if someone can be shown to have committed the sin of hypocrisy they are condemned and ignored. For example, I have recently ran into people who consider it to be hypocritical to critique Russia’s policy on gay rights, while remaining silent on the situation of gay rights in Saudi Arabia. Surely, this critic has a point that it is hypocritical to engage in such actions as one is not consistently critiquing all nations who fail to meet their standards for human rights, but the hypocrisy of such agents does not invalidate the point that is being made about Russia’s policies. However, in practise legitimately pointing out hypocrisy has the impact of suggesting that the hypocrite’s point is invalid because of his hypocrisy; if one shows that one’s interlocutor is being hypocritical typically the hypocrites arguments will be ignored. Consequently, the charge of hypocrisy, even if not intended as such, acts as a silencing mechanism that can be used to ignore the arguments that the convicted hypocrite is making.

Given the preceding it seems necessary to better understand why we view hypocrisy as such a pernicious sin, and if on reflection it makes sense to view hypocrisy as any more evil than other vices. For the rest of this entry I will examine these questions.

One reason why hypocrisy is viewed as so pernicious is that while western liberal democracies are secular, they bear the history of hundreds of years of Christianity, and Christianity condemns the hypocrite. The hypocrite is a particularly problematic figure in Christianity, because Christianity suggests that we are all essentially sinful, and plausibly suggests that because we are all sinful we should not pass judgment on others. The hypocrite will often pass judgment on others, and thus under a Christian interpretation the hypocrite seems to represent something opposed to the maxims of Christianity, as the hypocrite is not without sin, and yet he engages in passing judgment on others. Consequently, the Christian heritage of western liberal democratic societies certainly would reinforce hatred for the hypocrite. I am not suggesting that the message of Christianity is reducible to what I have disclosed above, but rather that the hypocrite seems oppositional to particular elements of Christianity.

One other reason why hypocrisy is viewed as particularly pernicious is that the hypocrite often offends the pride of other human beings; however, it should be noted that this factor is not specific to western liberal democracies. Due to the fact that we take pride in our lives, and like to think of ourselves as living decent, good lives, we take particular issue with someone who suggests that we are not leading good lives. In many cases such critics have failed to live up to their own standards for the good, so in order to avoid confronting the question of whether we are leading good lives, we point out that this person is a hypocrite, as this will end the conversation and allow us to preserve the image of ourselves as leading good lives. Therefore, our pride also contributes to the condemnation of the hypocrite.

Clearly, hypocrisy is not a positive quality, but it should be noted that within western liberal democracies it seems that it is viewed as one of the worst vices that a person can have. For example, it seems clear that we view the hypocrite as worse than the coward as we do not see people referring to others as cowards as a way of silencing them, but it does not seem to me to be at all clear that hypocrisy is worse than cowardice. If it is hypocritical to preach something, but fails to meet the standards that one preaches, then hypocrisy is a vice, but it is certainly not the worst quality that one could have. And I would say it is better to fail to meet the standards that one preaches, than to be unable to face one’s fears.

However, at this point it might be noted that hypocrisy is more than failing to meet the standards that one preaches, it is rather being duplicitous and presenting oneself as moral and using that image to serve one’s interests, while failing to live up to that image. This is the image of hypocrisy presented in Moliere’s Tartuffe; Tartuffe plays the role of the imposter, or the hypocrite, but his hypocrisy is not a mere failure to meets its own standards, rather Tartuffe presents himself as pious in order to get what he desires. Tartuffe is unconvinced of the truth of religious piety that he preaches. Furthermore, it seems legitimate to view the vice of people like Tartuffe as a social evil that need rigorous condemnation. So there does seem to be a form of hypocrisy that should be viewed as particularly pernicious. However, the trouble is that in many situations the people who are charged with hypocrisy are simply those who fail to apply standards consistently, or fail to meet the standards that they preach, and these people ought not to be condemned severely or ignored, as their vice represents an attempt to better themselves and humanity, rather than an attempt to use pious language to serve their own interests. The evil of the person who fails to meet the standards they believe in, is very different from the evil of the willful imposter, and because within our language we have a single term to cover these two divergent phenomena that carries with it a great deal of social disapproval, we need to be very careful of the way in which we invoke the language of hypocrisy, as we could be suggesting that someone is a manipulator when he is not, and we also could be silencing him, and failing to respond to the actual argument that he has made. This failure to respond to the actual arguments others make is something we should do our utmost to avoid, for we can only enhance our understanding of what is worthwhile, by engaging with the arguments put forth by others.

The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.