Before Christmas, there was big news controversy over the words said by one Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame in a GQ article. Robertson made controversial comments about homosexuality and race. Plenty of commentary arose both defending and attacking Robertson everywhere from mainline cable news to Facebook walls and Twitter feeds.
I do not want to discuss whether what he said was right or wrong or if he had the right to say it. I assume everyone already has an opinion on those issues and my shouting my own into the void of editorial opinion is unlikely to influence anyone or anything.
What I would like to talk about is the way “Duck Dynasty” presents itself and the narrative it creates, because it leads to deeper issues with today’s society.
The Robertsons are shown on TV as big-bearded rednecks who fit a supposed ideal type of rural Southern living. They appear to love simple living, family and God. Their family is one that many viewers believe themselves to represent or wish they could properly represent.
However, any pictures of the Robertsons taken before their fame shows a rich, upperclass family. All the Robertson boys can be seen clean-shaven and golfing in attire that would not look out of place in any fraternity or country club.
The image they present on the show is not the reality of the family. Their presentation has been carefully calculated and manipulated by network executives, screenwriters and even themselves in order to best appeal to their target demographics.
When Phil Robertson said the things he did, he expressed views that resonated with a section of the population. Within the minds of viewers and supporters, attacks upon Robertson then became attacks upon themselves. They had fallen into the illusion that Robertson was the same as them and represented their ideals, and so deserved to be defended against the liberal elites.
People tend towards developing Us vs. Them mentalities, and intentionally or not, Robertson and the A&E executives tapped into that part of human nature, and in doing so gained immense publicity. The whole fiasco was a boon in free advertising for the show. Meanwhile, the public was arguing over a person who only exists as a public persona and can more accurately be described as a character than a real person.
Perhaps the real Phil Robertson truly believes the comments he made and supports his right to say them in the public sphere without consequences, and the ramifications of that is certainly worthy of discussion, but the public conversation never reached that level of nuance.
Instead, everyone quickly drew battle lines to support their personal narrative of how the Southern stereotype should be viewed either as a bastion of traditional religious values or a last holdout of bigotry. The reality and context of Robertons’ statements were irrelevant. The illusion of conservative vs. liberal cultural combat took precedence.
People prefer to see life in black and white. Constructing a narrative where one’s in group is always right and under attack from evil outsiders is easy and preferred to introspective analysis.
However, the idea that there is a cultural war with definitive right and wrong is as much an illusion as “Duck Dynasty” is. The culture war has been fabricated by the media and by ourselves.
There are certainly key differences between cultural groups in the U.S. and broad tendencies in how they perceive life should be, but they issues are not being discussed and decided by reason. They are being informed by the emotional and illusionary narratives of each side.
Reality may better be described as endless shades of gray then as the clear black and white people prefer to envision. But narratives are how people prefer to see their lives. Reality TV is not going away anytime soon.
While it may be impossible to do away with narrative views of reality, or even undesirable, there is no reason not to attempt to realize more beneficial views then the ones we currently have.
If all of our illusions merely help cable television channels stay in business and give us a reason to feel self-righteous on social media, then the time has come for the authoring of a new vision of our reality and ourselves.