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Joyce S. Dubensky Headshot

Setting the Bar Too Low: Duck Dynasty and Tolerance

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Phil Robertson returns to TV this week in the premier of Duck Dynasty Season 5. Across the media, commentators are discussing his conflation of homosexuality and bestiality, debating his condemnation of homosexuality, and contesting his comments about the black community during the pre-civil rights era. They're also talking about how the controversy isn't hurting advertising profits for the show. People everywhere are interested in Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty.

This public discussion is raising many questions, including the extent of free speech and freedom of religion, the responsibility of companies to define and protect their corporate values and brand, and what we -- as a people and a nation -- think about bias. The network that produces Duck Dynasty, A&E, first suspended Roberts for his public pronouncements, but shortly after, reinstated him. To address the controversy, A&E is planning a PSA campaign aimed at promoting "unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people."

I think promoting unity and acceptance are good things. But is tolerance good too? I've spent much of my career combating prejudice and often find that people focus on tolerance when it comes to resolving conflicts. They seem to see it as the answer. Is it?

The question presumes we agree on what we mean by tolerance and that, if we do, this thing called tolerance is a solution to bias, verbal assaults and disrespect. I respectfully submit that neither of these presumptions is correct.

Tolerance is a complex concept. For many people, tolerance is something to which we should all aspire, something that provides a path to peace. But tolerance has another association.

When I think of tolerance, I envision the person holding their nose, saying in a disdainful voice, "I will tolerate you."

That's an image that doesn't sit very comfortably with me. It feels something like, "I'm not opposing your existence -- I will tolerate your right to exist, but please, stay far away from me."

Tolerance sets the bar too low. I envision setting the bar much higher.

I imagine people acting respectfully toward one another. I imagine them recognizing that being different is normal (i.e., not weird, threatening or frightening). I imagine people full of curiosity -- respectful curiosity -- which moves them to inquire about differences they don't understand and to be interested in the answers.

This vision is certainly difficult to achieve and the reality is that tolerance can be the first step away from ignorance or uninformed bias. So tolerance may have a role in resolving conflict, but we can reach higher. We can keep our respective beliefs and values, whatever they may be. And we can also treat each others with respect and bring a respectful curiosity about those different than ourselves to the table.

I encourage A&E and its audience to grasp this opportunity to promote unity and acceptance. Make the PSAs about respect and openness. Make the point that tolerance is not the end goal. It's just a first step on the long journey toward peaceful coexistence.