On firing people for their ideas

Phil Robertson is a jerk. Putting him on “hiatus,” whether that means outright firing or a suspension till things cool off, isn’t a violation of his Constitutional rights. Unlike Sarah Palin, I don’t admire him at all. But our principles are tested by how we respond to people we don’t like. Should employers fire people for public remarks them make outside work?

A Washington Post article provides some useful background for those who, like me, had never watched Duck Dynasty or heard of Phil Robertson. His remarks about gays have gotten the most publicity, but I personally take the most offense at his attack on the entire non-Christian world:

All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.

“Nazis, no Jesus” is completely false. Hitler was a Catholic and was never excommunicated. The large majority of the Christian churches in Germany, with the conspicuous and brave exception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, supported the Nazis. Nazi antisemitism had its roots in Christian condemnation of the Jews for “rejecting” Jesus, a condemnation which is consistent with Robertson’s view.

If those remarks are characteristic of Robertson, he’s not a very appealing person. But he could still be a good actor, a friendly person, perhaps even someone who gets along with people whose religion he despises. I don’t know, and I’d want answers to these questions if I were the one making a firing decision. This isn’t a legal issue of free speech, but an issue of tolerance and the spirit of free speech.

If employers commonly fired employees for things they said outside work, this country would be a very different place. Even with complete freedom of speech under law, people would be afraid to say anything controversial in public. Sometimes they are, but usually we can express our views without serious risk of losing our jobs as long as our words don’t directly impact our employers.

Perhaps TV actors are a different case, though. Their public image is a big part of the value they offer. If Robertson’s remarks made Duck Dynasty‘s ratings drop, A&E might have to get rid of him, just as a business decision. In this case, though, it’s possible that A&E has hurt itself worse by suspending Robertson and antagonizing conservatives. A more important problem is that those decisions lead to suppressing unpopular ideas, not necessarily bad ones. It’s been said that Hollywood people were afraid to criticize Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria because they’d be smeared as “anti-black.” If that could cost them work, their silence is understandable.

Robertson said some stupid things, and A&E had the right to suspend or fire him, but it would have been better simply to answer his irrational words with rational ones. You can’t chant that as a slogan, though.

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